What the Data Might Not Tell You: Funding Social Impact Movements

Three Questions to Ask Yourself:

Significant, system-breaking change takes time - and the impact of a movement is not always clear at first. Here are three questions to challenge your current approach to creating real, large-scale impact.

  1. If you were alive in 1955, would you have funded the Montgomery Bus Boycott?

  2. Today, what data do you need to see before making a donation?

  3. How diversified is your giving portfolio in terms of “time to impact” and “method of change”?

Let’s Get To It:

We live in a world where we expect impact to be measured, tracked, reported on and even photographed. The availability of data, and the constant ability to connect with donors has allowed nonprofits to provide more evidence-based results, and win the hearts and pockets of smart, analytical donors. But what about times where the data’s not there?

Put another way,  imagine it’s sixty years ago, and you’re deciding which cause to donate to: Would you have been as likely to fund protesters during the Montgomery Bus Boycott as you would fund school supplies for a segregated all-black school? The former option wouldn’t be able to boast about the future impact that those 385 days had on ending segregation in the US; whereas, the latter option could (in today’s terms) report on improvements in reading scores and direct quotes from satisfied families. Would the lack of data turn you off from funding activists and push you towards a more predictable impact opportunity?

Diversifying Your Portfolio with Movements

We’re not saying data’s not important. At GivingFund, we believe you should approach your giving portfolio with the same rigor you would your investment portfolio - considering timeline, risk preference, need for liquidity and many other factors to create a giving plan with a diversified approached. Part of reflecting on your portfolio of charities, should include understanding the how of the change you’re trying to create.

[Movements] apply slow pressure to government agencies, companies, and people in power, until there is a breaking point…. until inaction, is perceived as intolerable.

How many of the gifts you made last year funded programs that addressed current deficiencies in our social system? Things like after school activities for at-risk-youth or healthy food programs for communities in food deserts, are important causes and create both near-term results in the lives of the individuals they serve, as well as secondary impacts in those communities. Some of these programs might even have prevention outcomes - disrupting the compounding effects of poverty to change the path of an individual who might have otherwise ended up resorting to a life of crime or drugs.  

But equally important are the causes where the impact can’t always be seen or predicted linearly. As Paul Engler notes in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “This is how social movements work: They turn developments once seen as impossible into feasible ones by shifting public opinion and altering the limits of political possibility.” Movements raise our social consciousness whether through mass protests, advocacy and investigative reporting. They apply slow pressure to government agencies, companies, and people in power, until there is a breaking point…. until inaction, is perceived as intolerable.

Nonprofits like  The Fund for Global Human Rights  support activists on the frontlines of social movements

Nonprofits like The Fund for Global Human Rights support activists on the frontlines of social movements

So, How Do I Engage?

First, do some reflecting both on the organizations and causes you’ve given to:  How many, if any, focused on movements and/or impacts with longer, less clear timelines. Is it what you expected? Next, be honest with yourself - what level of data, or past results, do you need to see to fund a cause? Is that a fair standard for all your giving? What level of “risk” are you willing to take on, if a protest or campaign doesn’t seem to have immediate, tangible impact?

If you’re ready to financially support a movement, but aren’t quite sure where to turn, consider funding a large NGO that focuses on advocacy and movement building. Examples are The Fund for Global Human Rights, the ACLU, or the NAACP. These organizations offer training, protection and support for activists on the front line of movement building.

Another option is to consider supporting your favorite investigative news outlet. In a time when quality journalism is under constant attack, the role that reporters play in identifying and exposing cracks in our institutions and social norms (e.g. the New York Times expose that brought #MeToo  into our social consciousness).  Take down your ad blockers and pay for news subscriptions.  

Finally, the line between activism and slacktivism can be unclear, but showing your support for the causes you care about can never be a bad thing - just make sure your dollars actually go back to the community. Platforms like Bonfire help nonprofits raise awareness for issues, and connect buyers to platforms to learn more about key issues (who knew museums were the next community fighting ground?)

Buying shirts and other clothing that express your beliefs can help contribute towards movements. Just make sure the places you buy from truly support your causes.  Photo credit: Bonfire

Buying shirts and other clothing that express your beliefs can help contribute towards movements. Just make sure the places you buy from truly support your causes. Photo credit: Bonfire


At GivingFund, we believe everyone can be a thoughtful, strategic philanthropist but that doesn’t mean that we should use scientific data as the end-all-be-all in decision making. Intentional, well diversified approaches to change include advocacy and system-focused movements. Interested in learning more and developing a portfolio that aligns with your own personal beliefs?  Sign up to join the waiting list to use our Donor Advised Fund product and we’ll add you to our community.