In my post yesterday about “deviant philanthropy” I advanced the idea that deviance is an important element of successful communities. The reaction from readers was interesting. Some readers left comments disagreeing with what they thought was my advocacy of the “deviant” concepts that I suggested in the post. However, in my post I made clear that I was not necessarily in favor of the deviant examples.
“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.”
Other readers embraced the concept of deviance and a number of readers took to Twitter to proclaim that they saw themselves as social sector deviants.
The unusual thing about deviance is that individual deviants may very well be negatives. But the existence of deviant behavior is needed for a robust community that adapts and improves. A community without deviance is a Kafka-esque nightmare in which conformity rules.
In some ways, deviance might be thought of like every day germs. While clearly environments overrun with viruses and bacteria are terrible, the urge to stamp out all germs (deviance) through excessive use of anti-bacterials and antibiotics has shown to be a fool’s errand. Studies show that children who are raised in overly antiseptic environments end up getting sick more often than those who grow up with a natural level of pathogens around them.
Does that mean I’m in favor of germs? Of course not! I don’t “approve” of the cold virus. But I do recognize that germs play an important role.
This is the role of deviance. Deviant philanthropy can force philanthropy as a whole to question conventional practices. It can improve philanthropy both through making conventional practitioners actively reject the deviant behavior or through pushing the envelope so that conventional practitioners realize what is possible.
If you are a regular reader of Tactical Philanthropy, you’ve been exposed to a number of what passes in philanthropy as “deviants”.
- Bill Somerville’s grassroots philanthropy approach and rejection of evaluation and theory’s of change.
- Bill Schambra’s rejection of strategic philanthropy and his claim that philanthropy can never solve root problems.
- The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation’s decision a decade ago to stop designing their own programs and instead provide almost 100% of their grants for capacity building and general operating support (far in excess of the 20-25% levels prevalent at most large foundations).
- The HB Heron’ Foundation’s decision to invest almost half of their endowment assets in mission related investments when most of the field speaks positively about the practice but commits little to none of their assets to the practice.
- The Awesome Foundation’s monthly $1,000 grants in support of people doing “awesome” and often bizarre activities like hanging giant hammocks in public parks.
- The Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy which encourages members to give away free umbrellas or give free money to people who promise to give it to someone else.
Readers might have differing beliefs about which of the examples above are “good” and which are “bad”. But the are all “deviant”. They are all solidly outside the mainstream. They deviate from the social norms of the philanthropy establishment.
My point in the Deviant Philanthropy post was to suggest that deviance is too rare in philanthropy. For the philanthropic community to grow and evolve, we need more “deviants” who challenge our practices. That doesn’t mean that I or anyone else should feel a need to approve or agree with every act of deviance. It means that we need to be more open to the idea that the social norms by which philanthropy is currently practiced is subject to change and we should constantly seek exposure to deviant approaches.