Art & Social ChangeOf Love and Concrete

We Kept Overhead Low. Is This The Social Change We Hope to Leave Behind?

By March 21, 2013 2 Comments

(Over the course of the next few weeks I will explore a recent TED talk that has been appearing in my inbox and on my twitter feed. In part one of two I will review the talk. In part two I hope to explore the implications of the talk in creating social change through art.)

One of the speakers at the 2013 Ted conference in Long Beach California was Dan Pallotta. The name may not ring a bell for most but some of his work likely does. He is the guy that succeeded* in using endurance athletic events to raise significant sums of money for charitable causes. Think of those three-day bike rides for AIDS that raise tens of millions of dollars for research.

His big idea in this talk was not a new crazy endurance event that now incorporates zombies to raise awareness and funds for cancer. His idea was a challenge to our current thoughts around philanthropic work. His idea is grabbing attention with hundreds of thousands of views. What’s more important is that his idea is rocking the boat. The thousands of comments on the talk are a symphony of SHOUTS of affirmation accompanied by pointed questioning of his morality.

Pallotta highlights five challenges that social change makers are confronted with as a result of the current cultural dogma:

1. Compensation

We can pay a guy millions of dollars and put him on the front of a magazine to create a video game that promotes violence, but god-forbid we pay a guy a half million dollars to fight malaria in western Africa.

Culture seems to dictate that people doing good cannot be compensated highly for the social value they are creating.

Presented another way: Why would an MBA graduate sacrifice hundreds of thousands of dollars in yearly compensation to run an organization creating social change when they can get a tax write-off for a large contribution, be hailed a philanthropist and tell the schmuck running the organization what to do from a board position.

2. Advertising and Marketing

The national rate of giving has been stagnant at 2 percent for the past four decades. How can we expect the market share of spending on social change to increase if social change makers cannot spend money to share their story? If you build it and they don’t know it’s there, they will not come.

3. Taking of risk in pursuit of new ideas for generating revenue

In the world of business a leader can fail and we call it a learning experience. In the realm of non-profit work a failure calls into question a leader’s moral character. If we prohibit failure, we prohibit innovation. If we prohibit innovation to create social change, we are stuck with the status quo.

4. Time

The business world has plenty of entities that took years before ever turning a profit, see Amazon. Investors hung on for the opportunity of the up side, and likely because they had some skin in the game. The time scale in non-profit is drastically shrunk. If change does not happen at the expected rate, there is another organization ready to take up the funding for a cause, and likely having to start all over again.

5. Profit to attract risk capital

There is no market to raise money for building social change capacity. There is an ample market for operations (the programs) but very few want to fund the infrastructure required to grow an organization. Funding growth requires funding overhead, and culture seems to think that overhead is a naughty word!

Mr. Pallotta strikes a chord with these five poignant observations. For some folks, it is words that finally sing of real life experience, for others it is dissonance that is simply blasphemy. I do not possess all knowledge but I have my own experiences. In my follow-up piece I will share what it has been like to create social change through art in light of the challenges Mr Pallotta suggests are part of the repertoire.

Mr. Pallotta ends his talk with a question, do we want the epitaph of our generation to read “We kept overhead low” or do we want it to say “we created lasting social change”. They may not be mutually exclusive, but experience may suggest otherwise.

*Pallotta’s success is questioned because of the overhead (~40 percent) he required to accomplish significant fundraising.

IMAGE CREDIT. CC photo courtesy of Flickr user Bruce Bodjack.

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

  • Rachel Kassman says:

    I’m so glad you wrote about this! I saw the video last week and have been turning it over in my head since – can’t wait to read your part II.

  • Finally got around to watching this video; like you, Scott, I’ve seen it pop up among my FB and Twitter followers. Especially coming at this with some experience in the fundraising world, I have again and again encountered the limitations Pallotta is railing against–nonprofits consistently feeling the pressure to do more with less, to spend so very sparingly on their expertise and equipment and no one daring to question the long-term implications of these expectations. Another important voice on this issue, specific to the arts world, is Michael Kaiser who, since the economic downturn in 2008, has argued strongly against nonprofits making cuts to their programming in order to achieve financial stability; like Kaiser, I agree that doing so cuts into a nonprofit’s value and, after enough cuts, there’s hardly an organization left worth supporting.

    Looking forward to part two!

Leave a Reply