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Saving the Babies: Looking Upstream for Solutions – A New Introduction

By Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D

Your foundation’s grantmaking guidelines reflect your Board’s choice of philanthropic strategy, whether you meant them to or not.  Do your guidelines encourage social change or social service? 

Social service and social change are really quite different, yet they are often confused with each other. The social services tend to address human problems one human at a time.  Social action attempts to prevent those same human problems pre–emptively.  Should we invest in saving drowning babies one at a time (social service), or should we look upstream for causes and invest in solutions (social change).  Perhaps both.  These two approaches to doing good with philanthropy clash, often in unknown ways.  The parable offered in my publication “Saving the Babies: Looking Upstream for Solutions” is useful for considering the merits of these two very different strategies of useful philanthropy.  

Is Your Nonprofit Managed To Perform Social Service, Or To Create Social Change?

Where’s your action? That is, are you at the riverbank fishing out drowning babies one-at-a-time? Or are you positioned upstream making the shoreline safer? Asked differently, do your programs put buckets under drips of the leaking roof, or are you up on the roof fixing the shingles?  These two approaches – saving babies one-at-a-time or creating solutions that stem the flow of drowning babies –  pursue different strategies, with different benefits or outcomes.

Does Your Paradigm For Giving Feature Social Service, Or Social Change?

Your foundation’s grantmaking guidelines reflect your Board’s choice of philanthropic strategy, whether you meant them to or not.  Do your guidelines encourage social change or social service?  Or a mix?  Your institution’s actual practices should align with its intentions.   So if you want to see systems perform better (social change) but you see only short-term rescues (social service), you’ll be unhappy.

Are Your Ideas For Community Development Based On Social Service, Or Social Change? 

Activists, including donors making choices about what to support, generally prefer to see social change.  On the other hand, managers and business leaders generally prefer to see social service.  Knowing which you prefer allows you to read nonprofits’ newsletters and websites more smartly.

Social Services And Social Change Require Different Approaches To Program Evaluation

If the program wants to save children one at a time, evaluate for that (social service evaluation.)  But if it wants to promote plausible policy to save many children at once, evaluate for that (social change evaluation).

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How to cite this cover article: Mayer, Steven E., Saving the Babies: Looking Upstream for Solutions – A New Introduction.  Minneapolis: Effective Communities Project. Downloaded from EffectiveCommunities.com, [month, date, year]. 

The original report, created with support from the Ford Foundation, can be cited this way: Mayer, Steven E., Saving the Babies: Looking Upstream for Solutions.  Minneapolis: Effective Communities Project, 2008.