Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Standing Up for Retail

"There are times in almost every sector that forces of change come together to fundamentally disrupt the way the sector works...The philanthropic sector is on the brink of its own strategic inflection point...21st-century philanthropy can do [what] 20-century philanthropy could not do: underwrite social change on a wholesale basis."

Ben Hecht, Wholesaling Social Change: Philanthopy's Strategic Inflection Point, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, March, 2008

This manifesto of sorts argues that the combination of big money from the dot.com boom, the proliferation of computers, and Web 2.0 have created the breakthrough potential for "wholesaling" social change." Technology enables five "transformational functionalities: aggregation, dissemination, customization, collaboration, and vocalization."

Hecht then offers seven short examples of organizations that are taking up this promise in order to: advocate, lend, invent tech solutions, invest, and compile information and resources for change. These organizations share some common characteristics: thinking big from the outset, low incremental costs, borderless, revenue generating, new power relationships, market-driven, redirecting resource flow, and using technology for change.

I found these trends and examples to be persuasive. But do they add up to an "inflection point" and the "wholesaling of change"

First, are there other viable candidates for a "strategic inflection point?" I would suggest that the faltering of the American Dream in terms of intergenerational mobility, homeownership, growing income and wealth inequality, and stalled racial progress might fit the bill. The multiple dimensions of demographic change in the U.S. and worldwide should also be considered. Are there others?

Second, wholesaling is another way of talking about "scale," the Holy Grail of philanthropy and social change artists. Yes, we've got Amazon, but few people are reading? Yes, most people have computers, but literacy is declining. Yes, we have wide access to consumer financial services, but predatory products proliferate. Yes, we are all getting on the band wagon of new policy and political campaigns, but are policies changing?

The other side of scale is scope. Can anything really replace the one-on-one or kitchen table meetings of community organizers that build durable relationships? How can we use technology to facilitate complex and long-term transactions and relationships? Will the promise of technology just end up producing more simplistic, short-term answers? How do we better connect wholesaling with the retail work on the ground.

I don't know about the strategic inflection point and wholesaling argument, but I think Hecht is on to something. We just need to be careful about the blinders that manifestos bring with them.

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