Deviant Philanthropy

Warning The word deviant is such a strong cultural label that many people interpret it to mean something similar to evil. Calling someone “deviant” calls up images of illicit or extreme criminal behavior.

But that’s not what deviance really means.

Within sociology, the phrase deviance describes actions or behaviors that violate cultural norms. Since cultural norms are not objective or even necessarily logical, they require deviant behavior to define them. When cultural norms are positive and healthy, deviant behavior is systematically curtailed. But not all norms are positive and healthy.

All deviant behavior is a challenge to cultural norms. When those norms are not positive and healthy, deviant behavior highlights the existence of the cultural norm and calls into question its validity. The line separating cultural norms from deviant behavior is fluid. The line is the “edge” between what constitutes culturally acceptable behavior and behavior that the status quo rejects and seeks to minimize.

I think the status quo in philanthropy is pretty lame. The cultural norms which dictate what is acceptable behavior in the social sector are not set in stone. Like all cultural norms, they are not objective or even necessarily logical. They deserve to be challenged.

Challenging the status quo in philanthropy requires a flourishing of deviant philanthropy.

What might deviant philanthropy look like?

  • Foundations that publically belittle nonprofits which they believe are poorly run.
  • Nonprofits that pay their top employee at rates similar to the private sector including eye popping bonuses for outstanding results.
  • Foundations and nonprofits deploying lobbying and advocacy strategies to the fullest extent of the law and viewing themselves are critical players in American politics.
  • A large foundation using its endowment to invest in a concentrated pool of publicly traded companies whose operations they feel harm society or the environment and then launching a high profile shareholder proxy battle (in process by which shareholders can change corporate policies).
  • A foundation or nonprofit ousting the existing board and replacing them exclusively with intended beneficiaries of their programs.

Do I think these would all be good ideas? Of course not! They are deviant ideas and like any upstanding member of society, these deviant ideas violate my understanding of cultural norms and make me uncomfortable.

But that’s the point.

Maybe some of the cultural norms in the social sector are actually poisonous. Just as historical cultural norms such as racism and sexism were once accepted before they were rejected and became deviant behavior themselves, maybe there are elements of social sector norms that deserve to be rejected and relegated to the status of deviance.

It is difficult to say which deviant challenges to philanthropy’s status quo will one day become cultural norms themselves and which are rightfully rejected. But I think it is well worth our time to explore the potential of deviant ideas to positively impact the practices of our field.

If you think about the set of practices which are acceptable cultural norms as existing within a circle and deviant behavior existing outside that circle, the line separating the two might be referred to as the “Edge”. It is with this definition in mind that I named the new Tactical Philanthropy series Exploring the Edge. It is in this area, the barely acceptable, grey area of cultural norms that the battle to reframe our sector plays out.

What ideas do you think are currently “deviant” but should become an accepted part of philanthropy’s cultural norms? Submit your deviant idea to Exploring the Edge and let’s start challenging the status quo.

[A special thanks to my sociologist father for the dinner table conversations of my youth that inspired this post.]


  1. Paul Botts says:

    This is an interesting way of thinking about it, but a couple of your five examples have flaws.

    The last one for example would be not simply deviant from _cultural_ norms but would be obviously contrary to the federal laws and regulations governing tax-exempt organizations.

    The second one, about CEO salaries, is actually based on a false impression of the norm in the private sector. The vast majority of for-profit businesses, including virtually all of the ones comparable in size to almost all social sector organizations, do not pay their CEOs at eye-popping rates with big performance bonuses. For every one Exxon or whatever that does do that, there are literally 1,000 small and mid-sized businesses which do not. Indeed you might I suspect be amazed at how _low_ the top salaries paid are at the great bulk of for-profit enterprises. That is one reason the comparative-wages research by the guys as Johns Hopkins has for years failed to support the non-profit sector’s collective self-image as being wildly less than their imagined for-profit counterparts.

    Of course we’ve all read about the obnoxious cases up at the top of the food chain in the corporate world, but they are a very tiny top of a very large pyramid. Using them to make a broad-based conclusion is to repeat the same mistake highlighted by Jim Collins in “Good to Great for the Social Sector”, where he reminds us that by definition the great majority of all businesses at any given moment are _not_ well run — hence trying to “run our non-profits like businesses” sets the bar too low.

    • Paul, thanks for the comment. On the 5th example, electing beneficiaries as board members, how is this contrary to law? I may have used overly strong language when I wrote “oust”, but what I was really getting at was a foundation bringing beneficiaries in as board members. I’m not a nonprofit legal expert, but I’m not aware of any law that would prevent this. What am I missing?

      On the salary issue, I’ve seen the research you are pointing to. Since I’m trying to get at an issue of cultural norms, not debate relative pay, what if I wrote the potential deviant act as:

      “A nonprofit recruits a top performing private sector executive and agrees to pay them a base salary of $1 million with eye popping bonuses for results”

      • Paul Botts says:

        Well…phrased that way, sure I’d say yes let’s do that. In fact I’d want to at least try extending the idea beyond the chief executive slot to certain mission-central leadership roles like program director or (in the arts) artistic director.

        That’s just me personally talking though — I doubt that the culture of the social sector itself would tolerate such a choice anytime soon if ever.

        Regarding the 5th example, I was thinking of the self-dealing rule which is standard in state and federal laws governing both for-profit and not-for-profit corporations. Directors who are personally direct beneficiaries of the non-profit’s work, voting to approve expenditure for that work rather than for other similar work — that would be self-dealing. And if the board is exclusively made up of persons in that situation then there aren’t any “disinterested directors” who can do the voting instead (the fallback that most state laws allow for).

        • Ah, got your point on self dealing. I guess I was thinking of a broader class. So bringing in homeless individual to be board members at a big city homeless prevention organization. I was thinking of them just being part of the demographic, not overly direct beneficiaries. Got your point.

          Just to be clear, as I said in my post : “Do I think these would all be good ideas? Of course not! They are deviant ideas and like any upstanding member of society, these deviant ideas violate my understanding of cultural norms and make me uncomfortable.”

  2. Steve Viederman says:

    Sean, Lucy Bernholz recently did a piece noting that it is impossible to talk about foundations as if they were a singular class of institutions. Not an new idea, but worth noting.

    Deviant philanthropy exists and in many places is flourishing (though there can never be too much of it).It tends to be below the radar screens of people who think about “foundations”.

    I question whether foundations’ publicly criticizing non-profits is a good idea. Who are we to be so high and mighty? Perhaps we should start with foundations being more critical of themselves and of other foundations, publicly? That levels the playing field and would be very refreshing.

    On pay I believe in fair pay for excellent work. Higher salaries should be based, in the profit and non-profit world on results. The profit system does not work now. Lets try to create a meaningful system with meaningful incentives over a long. time horizon.

    Deviance in using investment dollars to add value to giving is something I have been working on for nearly 20 years. To have larger foundations following the lead of numbers of smaller foundations would be refreshing. And they do not have to form their own coalitions as many already exist, such as the Investor Network on Climate Risk, and the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility. And why stop at shareowner activities, which I support and have been involved in for years. What about community investing? What about investing in energy, water, climate, agriculture and other areas to make the world a better place for our children? These new investments would really meet a fiduciary duty of prudence, duty and care.

    And there are foundations, certainly too few, who do have grantee boards, or at least people like their grantees. I can tell you from personal experience it makes the foundation a better place.

    • Thanks for the comment Steve. By definition, there cannot be a situation with no deviance. Deviants help define cultural norms by exemplifying that which is “not allowed”.

      Regarding your comment on each example. As I wrote in the post: “Do I think these would all be good ideas? Of course not! They are deviant ideas and like any upstanding member of society, these deviant ideas violate my understanding of cultural norms and make me uncomfortable.”

      But I think it would be interesting and useful if more “deviant foundations” emerged.

  3. Seems like a much better emphasis would be on the RESULT a non-profit gets, not on their MECHANICS. It is plausible to see a non-profit that violates all of your mechanical issues with internal politics and have a great result and equally plausible to see one that you think is perfectly run internally and is completely ineffective in the world around them.

    Let’s focus on results. Example – 500 million people have come out of poverty in the last 20 years alone in China and India through capitalism, not through non-profits.

    On the flip side, a 10 year study of the last 100 years of non-profit work in Africa – hundreds of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives invested – has resulted in conditions being WORSE overall in Africa now than they were 100 years ago. Every non-profit involved in Africa in the last 100 years could have a perfect internal management mechanism and they would have all been bankrupt in their results.

    What result should we be getting? Let’s make sure that is the focus. Cleaning up self-focused, politically oriented internal management is the easy part. Ensuring non-profits have a good result is much more difficult.

  4. FYI – here’s just one backup for the idea that capitalism has been more effective than non-profits in solving world poverty:

    There are hundreds of similar stories on the web.