Art & Social ChangeOf Love and Concrete

Why Change Can’t Be Built In A Day

By April 17, 2013 2 Comments

Creating social change is not easy. Creating social change within the confines of cultural norms today is near miraculous. In my previous two posts, I have explored the challenges culture throws at social change makers. In part one, I explored the larger picture through the perspective of a national non-profit fund raising expert, Dan Pallotta. In part two, I explored the challenges on a personal level through my experiences using public art in Baltimore to create social change. In my final post in this series, I hope to suggest things that we can do as a society and as social change makers to make the process of lasting impact easier.

Compensation: Know what it is worth and ask for it.

Pallotta points out that society sees nothing wrong with compensating the developer of a violent blockbuster video game tens of millions of dollars, yet struggles to pay the guy ridding the world of malaria several hundred thousand dollars. Society knows how to keep score for the video game developer. Society has the company’s balance sheet. Society does not know how to keep score for the guy curing malaria. There is no balance sheet. Culture needs to consider that value goes beyond a bottom line. Change makers need to do our part to describe that value. On the personal front, Love Project artist Michael Owen and I had no idea how much work it would take to complete our “simple” project. We now know and as a result we understand better the value of such monumental tasks. We need to share this information with other folks: funders, artists, community developers and anyone working in the area of adding social and economic value through art. We need to help set the “appropriate” market rates for this type of work and ask for the appropriate rate.

Advertising and Marketing: There are more efficient methods than development.

One of Pallotta’s over-arching themes is how society perceives overhead in non-profit work as evil. Society needs to know that overhead may actually work to fight evil. The current methods of non-profit fundraising are ripe for corruption and cronyism. Development, the protocol for traditional non-profit fundraising,  is about relationships with people who already value you or your work. This mindset is supposed to reduce the amount of effort (dollars) spent on raising money as you are not working to find new supporters, but rather expanding the “charity” of the current supporters of the cause. This sounds great but not only does it lends itself to support coming from family, friends and the business acquaintances of the executive director’s spouse, it suggests the pool is only so wide and yet infinitely deep. In for-profit business, a development mindset would be ludicrous. It suggest that the pool of customers never expands; it just grows in depth. Business does marketing because it is easier to make the market wider than it is to make the market deeper. We as change makers need to make some noise on this issue. We need to fight for the opportunity to market and let our funders know that expanding the pool alleviates financial stress on them.

Risk: Failure is a part of learning even in social change.

A trend in start-up business these days is to “fail fast” and change. The notion is that it is better to figure out early that an idea is not going anywhere and move onto the next thing than to linger and waste resources on it. Mr. Pallotta points out that in for-profit that failure is seen as a pivot point, or learning opportunity. In non-profit, failure is viewed as a moral lapse of judgement. Society needs to understand that failure is still a learning experience in non-profit just as it is in for-profit. We need to accept and encourage risk, meaning failure might happen, so that we can grow. If social concerns are still with us, there is still opportunity and a need to try new methods of change. We must learn in order to create change.

Time Horizons: Be real about achieving social change.

Adding value that goes beyond the bottom line requires long-time horizons and there is always someone else behind you ready to take the money from the funder. Society (funders, the public, and organizations) needs to grow in our understanding of realistic expectations for change. We know that Rome was not built in a day, but do we know that the social ills of Rome were never solved? Change makers need to be realistic about the change that they can deliver and over what time. We need to do our part to demonstrate progress whenever possible. We need to embrace accountability and be able to clearly articulate the progress that IS being made. We need metrics and we need to know what they mean. It should be the goal of every organization to make their “balance sheets” available, and I do not mean financials. Funders also need to do their part to express realistic expectations and commit to the long term with organizations. Change will come but it will likely not happen tomorrow.

Social Capital Markets: Ownership of doing good.

When a non-profit organization wants to grow its infrastructure so it can deliver more services or products it relies on the same pool of dollars as it would for programming. Operations and build money are treated as one and the same. For-profit business would find this inefficient. Society needs to rethink the financial opportunities for social change makers. Yes, we are doing that with crowd funding platforms but these are limited by imagination and regulations. Could we imagine a platform that allows for distinctive “ownership” of social good? Could we create reasonable regulations that open up funding for social change? These are in the works but we must again accept some risk and allow for learning and growth so that our efforts to deliver social change can be made more efficient.

Social change is hard. I do not think that will ever change. But as a society, we can rethink our perspectives on delivering that social change and make it far easier. Many hands can lift a far greater weight when we don’t hold ourselves back.

Author Scott Burkholder

Scott Burkholder is executive director of the Baltimore Love Project, the largest self-initiated public art project Baltimore has ever seen. Scott grew up in Minnesota and came to Baltimore to attend Johns Hopkins University. He graduated from Hopkins with two engineering degrees. He believes art is powerful in its ability to show the world as it is, and more importantly, as it can be. He promotes art full time in Baltimore and is working to create a Social Venture Capital Firm that serves Baltimore's creative community.

More posts by Scott Burkholder

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Lee says:

    I think this post does an excellent job of naming some of the barriers to funding social change. This idea of re-examining the directions in which resources flow—whether society is able, given current prevailing wisdom, to direct resources where it will do the most good is key, in my opinion. The forms of capitalism and philanthropy we practice, like so many of our institutions, were really designed for another time—one with different challenges than we have now. Creative failures need not only to be allowed without negative consequences for the organizations and entrepreneurs with whom they occur, but counted on the positive side of the balance sheet when we learn from them. I would simply add that not only was Rome not built in a day, the great discoveries of science are normally the result of extensive experimentation over time. In most labs, most days, failure is what happens. It’s the mill of success. We know what we care about by how much failure we allow in getting it done.

  • Thanks for your incisive comment, Lee. I personally couldn’t agree more. The “impossibility of failure” (or to admitting it) is a major obstacle to meaningful social change. I look forward to exploring that issue more and deepening the discussion.

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