When you write startlingly big checks in an atmosphere of chronic scarcity, there are bound to be unintended consequences. Those consequences should guide some iterative party planning on the part of both doers and funders. Here, from my conversations in Oxford, are a few sobering observations about big bet philanthropy that I hope will provide some useful fodder:

  1. It’s not actually a thing (at least not yet).
    When these big checks started to drop, those of us who were doing, uh, Medium Bet Philanthropy were delighted. The prospect of a solid next-level layer of funding above ours was something we’d long hoped for, and the idea that big dreams and solid strategies might get the support they need was intoxicating. We all worried that some smaller funders might drop out in the wake of big grants, but because money attracts money, we hoped that a lot bigger would attract a lot bigger.
  2. It has “re-risked” ideas and organizations.
    Like other early-stage funders, Mulago is happy to take a chance on new ideas and operators. We’re delighted when our money—and the process of accompaniment through critical proof points—serves to de-risk an organization for subsequent funders.
  3. It often conflates growth and scale.
    If growth is a linear relationship between money and impact, scale is when you break free of that linear relationship on your way to an exponential curve of impact. It’s about a transition from doing yourself to doing via others; it’s a way to derive far more impact from the same amount of money (“systems change” fans should feel free to chime in here). It’s about an organizational and strategic transition, not just a bigger head count. It does require investment in new talent, expertise, systems, and often in additional geographies, and this is where big bets can make a huge difference
  4. It’s a new way to fail.
    One of the most disheartening stories I heard in Oxford was from a funder who supports a smallish organization in Africa whose work he greatly admires. One day, the leader of the organization approached him with a proposal for 10 times the organization’s current budget. In response to a gentle WTF, the leader confessed that, given all these big bets, he felt like he’d be failing his team—and the people he’s trying to serve—if he didn’t take a wild leap.

The initial bloom has perhaps faded from this rose, but that shouldn’t obscure the fact that there’s something very admirable going on here. Big bet grants have brought more money into the sector, are mostly unrestricted, and have focused on some of the best solutions out there. Here are a few ideas to throw into the iterative party planning:

  1. Recruit more big bettors.
  2. Build launchpads.
  3. Stretch things out.
  4. Don’t go it alone.

Read the full article about big bets in philanthropy by Kevin Starr at Stanford Social Innovation Review.