The Thagomizer

The Business End of Social Change

Perhaps by now you have noticed the spiffy new banner to accompany my post (thanks to blog-master-extraordinaire Hasdai Westbrook). Yet perhaps now you are wondering, “What exactly is a thagomizer and what does it have to do with your blog?”

As a dino-phile it is only fitting that I find inspiration for the title of my blog from my favorite “terrible lizard,” the Stegosaurus. The spiky end of a Stegosaurus tail is called a “thagomizer” and it is the business end of Stegosaurus: it is what packs the punch, delivers the painful blow, and shows predators who’s boss. Similarly how we create, define, and share wealth is, in this blogger’s opinion, the business end of social change. It pays our salary, funds our programs, and defines success. The economy is both a constructive and destructive driver and plays a central role in everyone’s life and pursuit of happiness. If we are looking to radically change our world to maximize the happiness and wellness of everyone then I think we need to start with what we value.

The traditional nonprofit model separates the way we raise money from the way we use it for social good. Donors make money doing everything from finding oil to running big box stores and then give it to nonprofits who use it for various projects for social change. The donor side then is free to consider the best ways to make money without regard to social impact and the nonprofit can focus on doing good with no consideration of economic impact. In this way we separate organizations and actions that create money from those that create social good.

I believe this results in many of the problems Scott Burkholder has commented on in his series on Dan Pollata’s Ted Talk on the way we think about charity. He points out five challenges social change makers face:

  1. Below average compensation
  2. Small or no budget for advertising and marketing
  3. No tolerance for taking of risk in pursuit of new ideas for generating revenue
  4. Expectation to make change in short time frames
  5. No profit to attract risk capital

When we create a split between organizational and personal contributions to the economy and contributions to social good we do not expect the way we make money will make us happier or more well and we are mistrustful of any model of social good that also seeks to make money. It is for that reason we create different standards for nonprofits than businesses. Nonprofits must use the bare minimum amount of money in order to run their program (i.e. no overhead), give no economic incentive to their employees (i.e. minimum compensation), and must always be able to produce results from economic inputs (i.e. no risk, no innovation, just results) because it is the only way they can prove their value.

Nonprofits are marginalized as takers rather than contributors to our society since money is the thing most valued and nonprofits by definition take money without offering any economic return. This makes them subject to their donors who do have money, and thus power to dictate how a nonprofit operates. Innovation in social change in this system then requires nonprofits to find donors to take a risk. Without willing funders a nonprofit cannot succeed.

Take for example Artprize, an innovative art initiative in Grand Rapids featured on the ChangeEngine blog this week. Founder Rick DeVos is grandson of the co-founder of Amway, Richard DeVos and much of the funding for Artprize comes from various DeVos or Van Andel (the other Amway co-founder) family foundations. While the method of giving out Artprize is democratic, participatory, and a brilliant model, the funding model hasn’t shifted much since ancient systems of patronage. To create change we often have to rely on finding the Rick Devoses of the world, the people with the access to money but the vision to invest in something new.

What first interested me in the economy, social enterprise, and alternative ways of exchanging was this conundrum. How do we merge the economic creation with the creation of social good? How do we take the ability to influence and control social change out of the hands of a few wealthy individuals and businesses? The Thagomizer is a way to explore those questions and consider how to:

  1. Change what we value and find ways to measure and compensate those who make our lives, society and world better
  2. Blur the line between business and nonprofit by creating businesses that measure social impact and nonprofits that are funded through their own economic activities
  3. Give everyone the economic opportunity to have the ability to improve their lives and give to others

By tearing down the walls between making money and doing good, we can begin to start a conversation about how we can do both at the same time.

Author Robyn Stegman

Robyn Stegman has always been active in her community and has had the chance to try her hand at many different aspects of social change from preserving historic documents at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library to founding Geeks for Good, an organization that matches nonprofits with tech savvy volunteers. Over the years she has worked with 21 nonprofit organizations to create new websites, marketing materials, campaigns, and programs that help build relationships, empower changemakers, and create strong, vibrant, communities.

More posts by Robyn Stegman

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Robyn, Thanks for the follow up to some of the previous Change Engine posts. We are starting to get a conversation going…. The three points of the Thagomizer are SHARP! I look forward to more on each individual thought.
    On a separate note, ArtPrize just hired a new ED that I think will explore alternatives to “traditional” funding. It will be exciting to see where it goes in the next five years.

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