Today’s blog is by Emma and examines the virtues of solutions to social issues that are small and rooted in local knowledge and relationships.
“The Power of Small”
“Philanthropy seems to have an obsession with size. The attention goes to the billionaires, the largest donations, the major donors. Big bet philanthropy and moon-shot philanthropy seek to shift the dial on a social issue – eradicating or addressing something for good. Philanthropists talk about having a lasting impact at scale. This fits with the model that entrepreneurs follow – business success is when your new product or service is adopted world-wide. The size of the current global problems – climate change, social inequality – demand big, bold answers.
“One problem with this focus is that it devalues small-scale solutions. Certainly for some things – a Covid-19 vaccine for example – a global roll out is exactly what is needed. But the success of other approaches can be due to the fact that that they are small, rooted in local knowledge and relationships. Despite this, I find it notable that some funding criteria include ‘scaling up’ when this may not always be feasible or even appropriate. In some cases it may even undermine success. The good news is that there is a counter-narrative that is gaining strength. One of the silver linings of Covid-19 was an awareness of the importance of neighbourliness and small acts of kindness. A whole range of community projects from providing food parcels and phone calls to the isolated demonstrated the value of small on-the-ground initiatives that are driven and trusted by local people.
“Another problem with the focus on ‘big’ is that it can make it feel that social change is beyond the reach of smaller philanthropists. The problems seem too large for them to be able to make a difference. This can cause paralysis and stop people from starting on a philanthropic journey or attempting to tackle more complex issues.
“One way for philanthropists to counter the inadequacy and overwhelm in the face of big, is to combine small efforts in collective action – whether funder collaboratives, giving circles or backing social movements. Another way is to fund what is working because it is small – recognising that small scale does not automatically mean small impact. One example, Blue Ventures, shows the power of a local approach. Its Executive Director, Alasdair Harris’s TED talk is an inspiring tale of how changing the practice of small fishing communities one by one has had a positive impact on the seemingly intractable problem of overfishing.
“To effect the change we want to see we must value human-level change rather than always chasing the economies of scale. Funding should sustain what works locally instead of always focusing on growth. Philanthropists can of course have a role in supporting the dissemination of effective small-scale solutions with others who could replicate them or embed them in policy. We should not make people feel excluded or disempowered because they are not engaged in ‘big’ philanthropy. As Desmond Tutu* put it “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world“.“
Image: Emma Beeston of the Emma Beeston Consultancy.
Emma advises grant-makers, companies and families on creating
and implementing giving strategies.
For enquiries, or to book a free 30-minute consultation, contact:
Tel: +44 (0)7810 543737
*Desmond Mpilo Tutu OMSG CH GCStJ is a South African
Anglican cleric and theologian, known for his work as an
anti-apartheid and human rights activist.