Does Writing a Check to a Nonprofit Equal Social Change?


photo from

I was listening to Rosetta Thurman’s blogtalk radio program on full-blast while preparing to head to campus on Wednesday morning, when a question arose on the program that stopped me dead in my  mid-mascara application tracks: Does writing a check equal social change?

Rosetta featured a roundtable discussion with Allison Jones and Elisa Ortiz, two fellow members of the Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance.  During a portion of the program, these bloggers discussed how different sectors engage in social change in different ways. “Being able to write a check for $10,000 for a juvenile prevention program is very different from sitting in a room everyday with those kids in that program,” Allison said. She stated that we do a big disservice to social change if we pretend that these two players [donor and administrator] don’t play very important– but also very different– roles.

Rosetta concluded that the action of writing a check should not be lumped under the umbrella of social change, and she brought up an interesting and eloquent perspective in her response (at 15:50 or so). She said,

Philanthropy by itself, in the writing of a check example, is not social change to me because the money has to then do something. It has to cause some type of action or activity that actually does change a community. You don’t know that right away when you write a check. It’s what happens afterwards.”

It is then that social change—and what constitutes social change– begs to be defined. And Rosetta may be right about the lumping; the term “social change” is popping up everywhere. There are 241 blogs on the List of Change and they cover everything from fundraising, to cause-related marketing, to mentoring and teaching.

So what is social change? According to Wikipedia, social change is any event or action that affects a group of individuals who have shared values or characteristics, or acts of advocacy for the cause of changing society in a way subjectively perceived as normatively desirable. Unfortunately, I don’t think this definition helps tighten up the term. Perhaps it really is as vast as our many ways of classifying it.

In my opinion, there’s a gap in our language– the way that we talk about “doing good”– that the term social change is filling. Why might a person give a monetary gift to a homeless shelter? Why might the Entertainment Industry Foundation launch the iParticipate initiative? Albeit overused, I think, “to aid in social change” may be a logical and appropriate answer to these questions.

Perhaps writing a check is to social change as putting a ‘hire me’ tab on your blog is to establishing yourself as a worthy job candidate. They are baby-steps. They are mini-means to an end… but it is difficult to be hired if you do not take that first step to sell yourself, just as it is difficult to initiate social change without capital.

The donor supplies the financial means for social change. I agree that social change cannot be measured immediately upon the presentation of a check to an organization. Perhaps the funds won’t successfully further social change at all– but the intent of the donor to further social change still stands, and it’s still important.

While I agree that the term social change is widening, I think  it’s important that we allow it to widen if it allows people to connect to causes. If a donor aligning his or herself with social change encourages more giving, then bring it on, I say.

But Rosetta’s perspective poses an interesting question: how will we adapt our language to clarify the roles that sectors, individuals, donors, and administrators play in supporting social change?

How lovely that we discuss charity, social change, and philanthropy so frequently that we need even more words to define our roles in the endeavor!

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Trends 14 Comments

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

14 Responses to Does Writing a Check to a Nonprofit Equal Social Change?

  1. Rosetta Thurman

    Thanks for listening! Lots of food for thought here. I don’t think we need more words to define our roles, we just need to be really clear about what we mean when we say them. It seems that the “change” part of social change can be seen as both a noun and a verb – I prefer the verb. I prefer the action language that tells us something has to happen beyond watching TV with a volunteerism storyline or writing a check to an organization. I also believe that we need to be the keepers and doers of the “changing” – see to it that our donations are making a real impact, engage in advocacy, etc. I agree with Allison that we need all those actions working together to effect true social change.

  2. bensheldon

    I use the phrase “systemic change” to talk about true wealth/power redistribution. I use “social change” to raise money from the affluent class. It’s good to have a fluffy phrase if you’re going to take someone’s money and use it diminish their power.

    Of course, that’s assuming that you are actually are working to redistribute wealth/power and not just “symptomatic change”, which is my cynical phrase for it.

  3. colleendilen

    Thanks for the comments, Rosetta and Ben!

    @Rosetta Adlai Wertman (former CEO of Chrysalis and Clinical Management Professor in LA) made us laugh and nod at the YNPN-LA event last night when he mentioned that only a very few years ago “social enterprise” was called “having a nonprofit that found some way to make money” and a “social entrepreneur” was instead called variations of, “a person who started a really big and internationally effective nonprofit.”

    It reminds me of Martin and Osberg’s, “The Case for Definition,” which was published when folks feared damage from the over-use of the term “social entrepreneurship.” It will be interesting to watch roles and words continue to evolve as needed.

    @bensheldon “Systemic change” is a great term to bring up here. I really like the direct distinction you make between the terms. I agree that social change is rather fluffy and a bit like a buzz-term right now so it’s a good one to align with donors.

    I hadn’t heard “symptomatic change” before but I’m adding it to my mental vocab list. That term certainly has a place in certain conversations and situations!

  4. JaneB

    It does seem right now that social change is in the eye of the beholder. In a previous non-profit job, we used to talk about advocates and champions, and that the work couldn’t get done without both. The champions are the enablers, the check-writers, and advocates see the need, frame a solution and then work to effect that solution. Without champions, advocates can’t go much beyond the second of these three steps. That being said, I do personally take issue with credit for social change often going to the most passive of players – those with the resources but no inclination to get their hands dirty. I can’t help but wonder if they are let off the hook too easily – able to feel good about effecting social change, but keeping a comfortable distance from those they “help”. I get irritated, for example, with every “Save Darfur – Not on Our Watch” sign I see in my suburban town. Are these folks really actively working toward a solution, or just wanting to feel good about themselves and have their neighbors think they activists? It’s a tad too self-serving for my taste.

  5. Caroline

    I like Jane’s champions/advocates language, because it allows both roles to hold equally positive connotations. To me, check writers DO effect social change. Yes, it’s unfortunate to have such a broad spectrum of donors – a board member who donates his or her time to help run an organization and gives a great amount of personal money is definitely different from someone who spent $10,000 to come to one gala mostly to see and be seen at a charity event. But to prescribe more of an importance to either the donor or the administrator is dangerous because it’s a mutually beneficial cycle. Without the administrator, nothing gets done and the donor has nowhere to send the check; without the donor, the administrator has no job and effectively no cause. Yes, sometimes it’s annoying that the donor gets all the credit, but it’s the world we live in, and I don’t think most of us are in the nonprofit sector to receive grand accolades. My perspective comes mostly out of the structure of my organization, though; we are arts-based and have a policy against using volunteers, so there are no other ways for our patrons to “effect social change” besides writing a check – so to me, they are.

  6. Pingback: “How do you define and measure social impact?” | A. Lauren Abele

  7. Elisa

    I agree with Jane and Caroline on liking the champion/advocate frame. They can’t exist without each other.

    Also, to get back to Rosetta’s point above: if we want to use ‘change’ as a verb then writing a check does apply – its an action after all. As someone who both writes checks (or more accurately, has donations direct debited from my checking account 🙂 and works as an advocate I can see both sides of the coin.

    In some ways, I see it as doing what is most efficient for me and for others; I pay someone else to cut my hair and do my taxes after all because I’m not good at those things. By the same token, I don’t know much about publishing a nonprofit magazine, but I give money to Bitch Media and they publish that magazine as well as an amazing website, etc. ( Others may not be effective advocates for smart growth, which is the focus of my organization, so they pay us to do it. It makes sense for all involved.

  8. Rosetta Thurman

    Elisa’s comment makes me think of donors as holding signs by the road that say “Will Pay for Social Change.” I think that’s what some folks mean when they say that social entrepreneurship is the future of nonprofit work because donors want new and better ways of changing the world and they want them now.

  9. Pingback: Weighing Outputs: Measuring Social Impact in Museums and Nonprofits « Colleen Dilenschneider- Know Your Own Bone

  10. Pingback: » Working at a Nonprofit Does Not Equal Social Change Rosetta Thurman

  11. Jonathan Horowitz

    I’m not clear on the value of the author’s central argument. What good do we do by keeping people at arm’s length who wish to have a stake as social changemakers? Donors, volunteers, and young people who invest their time and money into high-impact non-profits are effecting social change. It seems myopic and ungenerous to suggest that only those involved most directly in the mission-related work of an organization are deserving of the “social changemaker” title.

  12. Elisa

    @Rosetta Maybe I’m naive, but I usually think that people look specifically for an organization that can create the kind of change they are interested in rather than standing by the side of the road which assumes they’ll take whatever they can get regardless of the circumstances.

    On social entrepreneurship – while I hate that term and most things associated with it or described by it, I have to admit that in some ways I agree with those looking for the newest and best ways to change the world now. Why should we wait around and allow people to suffer if we can change it and quickly? Of course, that doesn’t mean that any of these ‘entrepreneurs’ have that solution, but the desire for change is certainly understandable.

    Thanks for provoking some excellent conversation Colleen and Rosetta!

  13. Pingback: » Going crazy over social impact

  14. Pingback: Working at a Nonprofit Does Not Equal Social Change « AMPHiB LiB

Add a Comment