Behind the curtain: One theory of social change


There are many critiques of philanthropy as overly navel-gazing on one hand and non-transparent, on the other. With the foundation in a period of stepping back and considering how our programs can have more impact, this is an attempt to pull back the curtain and share some of the conversations and debates we’ve been having over the last year. In the spirit of partnership, I hope this level of transparency can advance a broader dialogue in philanthropy and the fields we support, sharpening our collective strategy and vision for social transformation.

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When I started working in philanthropy in 2003, one of the first things I learned is that you’re supposed to have a dry, as opposed to a sweet, drink before you start eating. You know: champagne, gin, white wine. These “aperitifs” are meant to stimulate your appetite. I know that to some, this is what philanthropy looks like—lots of networking and cocktail hours. Or more cynically, infinite strategic planning punctuated by cocktail hours.

Two years ago, I joined the Ford Foundation to work on an initiative focused on organizing, civic engagement and leadership development in communities impacted by social injustice. As a rare issue-agnostic (or more accurately, multi-issue) funder, I’ve been able to engage many colleagues across the institution who also care about social movements and building power in marginalized communities. I’ve been able to test my theories of social change with colleagues who are experts in, say, women’s rights or LGBT equality or educational justice, both in the U.S. and across the globe.

This last period at Ford has presented an opportunity to revisit an important lesson I’ve learned repeatedly over the last decade: We funders are not very good at what we expect our grantees to do, namely articulating a clear, compelling and concise theory of change. It’s not so hard to understand why. Transformative social change doesn’t fit so neatly into boxes and arrows and linear diagrams. Social movements are inherently contextual and enabling conditions are so, well, conditional. Concise theories of change beg for critique, especially when presented to a smart, committed audience.

I wanted to do better. So I started pulling frameworks and theories from sociologists, political scientists, historians and campaign strategists. I ran some of my synthesized ideas by colleagues and organizers and other people smarter than me. I found myself in my office surrounded by butcher paper filled with circles and arrows, Trivial Pursuit-style pie-wedges and waves, all in an attempt to capture a multi-dimensional process on a two dimensional plane. Around this time an email arrived in my inbox from a colleague in communications, asking if there were any projects I might want assistance with. After verifying that this wasn’t a too-good-to-be-true scam, I worked closely with our communications team to produce the animated version you see below.

This animation is an attempt to articulate one theory of social change—that of an individual program officer. It’s not meant to capture the entirety of my initiative’s approach, let alone that of the Ford Foundation. It’s an aperitif, meant to whet the appetite for the types of nuanced and complex debates we’ve been lucky enough to have inside of Ford. I hope the animation will leave you wanting to dive into some of questions we’ve been exploring over the last six months, things like:

  • What is the dialectical relationship between political opportunity, organizational infrastructure and engaged individuals? How does political opportunity influence the shape of infrastructure, and vice versa?
  • How does technology transform all three of these components?
  • How do other frameworks overlay and interplay with this one, e.g., momentum and structure, constituencies and organizations?
  • How does an organizational infrastructure develop the ability to exert both inside and outside pressure? And how to determine the right balance between the two?
  • How does extreme inequality and the overwhelming influence of money in politics change this model? And what does it mean when the primary target of change shifts from the state to corporations?

The answers are not in this theory of change, but some of them might be found in this sampling of readings which dig deeper into contexts, conditions and strategies:

Of course, the real litmus test of any theory of change is not only what it reveals in hindsight, but how it informs our actual and applied movement building strategy, in real time. So how does this animation resonate with contemporary efforts like Caring Across Generations or the newly launched Make It Work campaign, which focuses exactly on the women’s economic justice opportunities identified in the animation? How does it resonate with your work, your strategy, your theories?