Big Bang Philanthropy
How one group of funders gets the most for the poverty-fighting buck.
Three years ago, several of us realized that we had become a de-facto co-funder group: We were funding a lot of the same poverty-fighting organizations, had similar philosophies, and liked each other’s company. Each of us had other funders in mind who we thought might be a good fit, and it seemed like a little structure might help facilitate a deeper level of collaboration. We decided to form a group called Big Bang Philanthropy, and in 2011, we all met in California.
The mission of the group is to drive more money to great organizations fighting poverty. We do it by sharing leads, due diligence, ideas, and networks. What we have in common is this:
- A focus on the basic needs of the poor
- A commitment to funding for real impact
- Recognition of the need for scalable solutions and business-like organizations to deliver them
- A desire to work actively with others in the group
- At least $1 million devoted to funding poverty solutions annually
- Three or more organizations funded in common with others in the group, with at least $100,000 invested in each
And it’s working well. There are 12 funders in the group, representing more than $60 million focused each year on international poverty. We talk with each other often, and while it would be hard to quantify, it is clear that a lot of additional money has gone toward the high-performance organizations we share in common and to organizations we recommended to each other. Members can put out queries to others in the group and hear back from someone within hours. We go to the field together and debrief afterwards. The collaboration is high-value and immediate, and there is more of it all the time. The idea is working, and here’s why:
A focus on impact
The single characteristic that most defines and unites us is a commitment to real impact. We don’t always define or measure it in the same way, but we are agreed that it must be the thing that drives funding; and while our tools and methods are imperfect, we have to do the best we can.
Big Bang is, above all, a group of friends. That is the defining dynamic and the spirit that shapes everything. We are all busy, and we want to focus on doing a good job—we don’t want additional hassle or unnecessary obligations. We make sure that everyone is face-to-face with the others as often as possible, but we don’t want a lot of rules, a point raised early on. Here, in fact, are our rules in full:
- There should be a minimum of rules.
- Everyone must maintain absolute trust and confidentiality; if you need further guidance, see the movie “Fight Club.”
- Members can initiate events and discussions around Big Bang, as long as they run it by two other members first.
Big Bang is a place for no-holds-barred discussions of the organizations we fund in common, and for dissecting our own failures and successes. We argue happily: Big Bang is a safe place to advocate passionately for organizations you believe in and an equally safe place to say no. When one of us calls another with a question about an organization, we expect—and get—an unvarnished opinion. We can do so because we trust each other.
Sharing is at the heart of the whole enterprise, and we are effective only to the extent that we share—whether it’s due diligence, networks, leads, or ideas. It’s turned out to be a huge win-win: Those who have deep networks can leverage their leads, and those who can do deeper due diligence have the gratifying experience of seeing their hard work influence the decisions of others.
Big Bang does not pool money; everyone makes their own decisions their own way. To do otherwise takes the fun out of philanthropy and distances us from those we ultimately serve: the poor. Collaboration without autonomy becomes bureaucracy, and we want to stay nimble. Autonomy also protects us from the foolishness of the crowd: When a Big Bang organization stutters, everyone makes their own decisions about continued funding, and there is rarely a mass exit. Autonomy and informality depend on each other, and help us make the most of diverse views and opinions.
So far, the group is all that we might have hoped, and if you’re wondering why we named it Big Bang Philanthropy, it’s because we are all looking for the biggest impact bang for the philanthropy buck, we hope it’s the start of something big, we want impact-driven philanthropy to expand indefinitely, and, of course, it keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously.