The Role of Deviant Philanthropy

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.

I wrote:

“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”.

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.


  1. Paul Botts says:

    In principle and in practice I couldn’t agree more. I’m a regular challenger of existing practice and conventional wisdom in philanthropy and for that matter in the not-for-profit sector as a whole; so much so actually that for me personally I have to guard against the seductive siren call of reflexive contrarianism. After all there’s no place quite so comfy as that moral high ground is there?

    And it’s the distinct scent of that siren call that frankly made yesterday’s T.P. post come across differently from a straightforward argument that philanthropic practices aren’t challenged enough. [Which actually I no longer agree with exactly — my sense now is rather that philanthropic practices are too rarely challenged _well_ which isn’t the same thing — but anyway we’re certainly coming from similar overall senses of the institutional-funder sector’s overall effectiveness and self-awareness.] The social politics of our sector being what it is, you’re stacking the deck rhetorically with phrasings such as “like any upstanding member of society, these deviant ideas violate my understanding of cultural norms and make me uncomfortable”. Put that way, what educated — pardon me, “conscious” — person in the social sector doesn’t instantly want to be one of the “deviants”?

    P.S. The germ analogy may not actually go the way you intended it, if you follow the thread a bit…germs after all are not deviant bits _of_ a system but rather are purely self-interested invaders from _outside_ it. And the goal with “deviant” ideas is that some of them turn out to be individually beneficial right? and/or that they force a system to actually change its practices? A germ never does either of those things, and its only actual benefit is forcing a system (e.g. a child) to learn how to defend itself (build its immune system) from more germs. A baby is to germs more as the philanthropic sector is to…political assaults, say.

  2. Paul Brest says:

    I agree with the premises of Sean’s post on deviant philanthropy, but I’m confused about what he thinks constitutes mainstream and deviance. My guess is that most WRITING about philanthropy in the past decade has advocated for “strategic” philanthropy, from which Bill Somerville and Bill Schambra are “deviants.” But if you look at the actual PRACTICE of philanthropy, whether in terms of numbers of foundations or dollars granted, Somerville and Schambra are completely in the mainstream, and strategic philanthropy is deviant. As an advocate for strategic philanthropy, I certainly hope that it becomes mainstream–but that hope is a long way from being realized.

  3. Paul and Paul,
    Excellent, challenging questions from both of you. I’ll reply in my post tomorrow where I’ll quote you both.