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

Posted on March 21, 2013 · in Art & Social Change > Of Love and Concrete


(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.

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