The Ethics of Big Bet Philanthropy

Big bets can support the kinds of advocacy campaigns that are critical to social change. They can help organizations weather defeat and press forward when momentum is against them.

Organizations pursuing a big-bet investment concept must develop a compelling point of arrival and a credible path toward it. They also need to clarify what role philanthropy can credibly play in that effort.

Leadership and Responsibility

The growth of big-bet philanthropy is exciting for the field. However, a few fundamental barriers must be overcome to increase the number of these significant financial investments that scale social change.

A lack of clarity about what enduring results a big bet could credibly achieve and a clear path to get there undermines donors’ willingness to take the plunge.

Big-bet philanthropy should catalyze leaders’ long-term ambitions by liberating them from short-term fundraising, imbuing a sense of momentum that can attract other investment, and empowering organizations to strike weightier blows against intractable problems.

Yet, too often, those promoting this approach focus heavily on the enormity of a problem and its moral imperative to tackle it and not enough on the logical path to get there. This imbalance skews the conversation. Luckily, there are uncomplicated methods to resolve this issue. 

Power and Responsibility

When the term big bet philanthropy gets tossed around, it refers to announcing a gift over eight figures. It is a loose, imprecise label that may invite sloppy thinking and bad practice.

Many of society’s most significant developments throughout history have been sparked by focused contributions made by generous individuals like Barbara Picower. Examples include installing seatbelts on autos and eliminating hookworm disease.

But these efforts can be risky and require time, patience, and human and financial resources. Often, they are not designed to achieve a measurable, near-term impact; instead, they seek to change the capabilities and prospects of an effort over the long haul.

As this collection of articles shows, these bets are not a silver bullet, but when used with discipline and ambition, they can help philanthropy make the world a better place. It is an issue that demands the attention of philanthropists, foundations, and social-change organizations.

Organizational Culture

In philanthropy parlance, big bets are eight- and nine-figure investments in a project that seeks to solve or dramatically improve persistent social problems. These differ from the immense gifts supporting scholarships, colleges, and university endowments, open-ended research, or naming opportunities at cultural institutions. Big bets are a distinctly different approach, requiring a bold vision and a strong leadership team.

Whether the philanthropic community chooses to invest in this new style of giving will have profound consequences. It could lead to a renaissance of impact and innovation focusing on society’s most pressing needs. It could also lead to a retreat from risky strategies, a return to a focus on ephemeral “meets-needs” initiatives, and continued funding of the status quo. 


When executed with discipline and ambition, this approach can lead to a renaissance of giving focused on societal change, or it can lead to philanthropy that neglects society’s greatest needs, leaving donors and those in need disappointed.

The term “big bet philanthropy” is imprecise. Still, most proponents use it to describe an announced intention to invest significant amounts of philanthropic dollars (Bridgespan defines eight and nine figures) in a single, well-defined strategy to address a substantial problem quickly. 

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