AmbitioUS is an initiative of the Center for Cultural Innovation to act as an experimental arm of the artist-support sector. Throughout the initiative, Angie Kim, President and CEO, will share her observations and reflections related to this cross-sector, experimental, and systems level work.
The social wake-up calls from COVID-19 are not over. Much like the virus, the lessons keep coming, requiring all of us, including philanthropy and nonprofits, to stretch, to adjust, to change. We cannot waste time or resources in this moment when deep change is both urgently needed and absolutely possible. I’ve been thinking about the economic concept of “deadweight loss” recently. No one intends to generate deadweight loss, but it happens even in nonprofit work, and it can happen especially with foundations whose financial capital influences the actions of the nonprofit sector.
The basic premise of deadweight loss is that economics is inefficient when there is excess supply relative to demand. This imbalance negatively impacts both producers, who mark up prices to cover unsold goods, and consumers, who are saddled with that extra cost. According to the McKinsey 2020 report on The Social Contract in the 21st Century, “deadweight loss … is the cost to society generated by an economically inefficient allocation of resources within the market.” When applied to progressive nonprofit social-change actors, especially institutional foundations and their supplies of philanthropic capital, deadweight loss can be applied to the oversupply of philanthropic capital relative to achievable or desireable impacts, with the downside that nonprofit services may end up being counterproductive, too weakly applied, or downright harmful.
The combination of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement was so cataclysmic–making everyone question their purpose and priorities–that many institutional foundations also questioned their funding priorities and strategies. COVID-19 created the conditions for widespread recognition that many, many systems of economics, health, education, justice, and labor are fragile, exploitative, and not working for nearly anyone. To a large degree, America’s failures to respond to COVID-19 at every level awakened people of all identities and backgrounds to the idea that as long as Black people are discriminatingly harmed, the injustices that underlie all systems affect everyone personally. The intersection of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement was, in itself, a catalytic moment in the culture wars that unified the many, many divergent, and sometimes competing, camps of progressives who were suddenly unified on the lives of those most harmed, who continue to be harmed, and to focus on solving problems at systemic levels. For the first time, perhaps ever, most progressive foundations were talking about the same things simultaneously–DEI (and later “A”) work, justice, and fairness across all issue areas. There has rarely been such widespread agreement about the desire to address system failures through the lens of equity and justice. When so many people and institutions make equity the unifying outcome across issue areas, this creates a path forward to realizing a new national cultural identity rooted in diversity.
I’m not saying that we’re living in some kumbaya ideality; I am simply pointing out that progressively funded charitable priorities should have adjusted to take stock and take advantage of what shifted during this seismic quake in our national collective consciousness.
One of the most significant examples of deadweight loss currently is the mismatch between talking about the need for change versus funding the structures manifesting change itself. There is currently an oversupply of support for narrative change activities relative to taking advantage of unusual and optimal conditions to actually build the world we want to live in. To be clear, narrative change is incredibly important: The U.S. is in the throes of a renewed culture war that pits those who represent colonizer ideals against those of color and other differences. The black swan event of COVID-19 and the unforeseen popularity of Black Lives Matter protests should have affected how narrative change is positioned and performed.
I became aware of how prevalent narrative work was going to become when, roughly seven years ago, I was invited to meet with movement leaders outside of the arts sector in which I work. Advocates in recidivism, labor, immigration, education, debt, etc. were essentially sharing the same request: They had won key legislative battles over the decades but their hard-fought laws were not being enforced because they had not done enough to change people’s hearts and minds. Consequently, they wanted to sit down with me to contract with artists and creative impact producers to shift public understanding and opinions of their priority issues–a typical “narrative change” strategy requiring the use of artists.
The time and place to focus strategically and narrowly on long-standing issue areas were before COVID-19 disrupted everyone’s lives and George Floyd’s murder exposed so many massive system failures and the disproportionate impact on people of color. Now, too little is being invested in fresh solutions relative to the capital being expended to continue convincing the public on causes.
How should we behave differently if we can celebrate instead that the larger, system-level narrative has already been won? Popular votes and opinions on so many current issues critical to the culture wars–gun control, public education funding, same-sex unions, health care for all, reproductive rights, and who should be president–demonstrate that the majority of Americans are in agreement.
But we have not started acting like anything is different. And, there is a zeitgeist of fatigue for conventional framing of arguments and solutions that haven’t kept pace with the times, from the growth of independent workers outside of inherited systems of worker protections to the risk that everyday people face in buying cryptocurrencies that have defied categories of being regulated as a security or commodity. We would do better to take advantage of the uniqueness of this moment to build, create, and enact the kind of world we want to live in. Expending resources on changing hearts and minds that have largely become receptive is an example of our industry’s deadweight loss.
Take, for example, what is happening on the Trumpian right: They fought the narrative change battle by normalizing racism and sexism and are now attending to the structures by which their ideas will manifest: overturning constitutional freedoms, restricting voting rights, and using militia-state tactics. In a time that seems utterly depressing for progressives with every Supreme Court decision, it should instill hope and resilience that the extremity to which the opposition will go reflects how desperately they cling to power knowing full well that they have already lost the hearts and minds of most Americans. History will not treat progressive leaders kindly if we cannot, like the Trumpian right, act in concert now to take advantage of the moods that have been shifting.
Relative to actual, universally agreed upon impact (we all have a rough idea of what unifies progressives: a healthy and happy planet and people, regardless of their differences), the way to avoid deadweight loss is to work from the assumption that the narrative change battle is largely won. It’s time to move on to building: Investing in the do-ers, enacters, inventors whose voices and perspectives need to be healed and heeded, as well as their programs, entities, and supporting infrastructures that reflect the future that we want to live in. Narratives rooted in shared values and visions will show up in new interventions and institutions that will shape everyone’s lives in tangible ways.
One sound argument for shifting from narrative work to building work is the countless times social-change agents have shared with me how frustrated they are about not being able to “see” what the possibilities for an alternative reality can look like.
Foundations and other civil society actors can demonstrate that change is ultimately a story of action. In the wise words of CCI’s narrative shifter Nichole Christian, “When you can see a thing done, you can dream a thing, and to dream a thing is often the first step to doing a thing.’’