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Why major philanthropists are giving more money to just one cause

By William Foster and Alison Powell for Harvard Business Review

In his recent Harvard Law Review opus, President Barack Obama highlighted the yawning opportunity for leaders on both sides of the political aisle to repair the criminal justice system, in part by changing sentencing laws and ending the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Despite the economic and social benefits, there are fears that reform will not be a priority for the new administration or congressional leaders. Fortunately, private funders are ramping up their efforts to help tackle not only criminal justice reform but also several other social and environmental challenges facing the U.S., including conservation, immigration, and education reform.

Foundations and wealthy individuals are making big philanthropic bets on driving social change solutions at scale. Our research on social change philanthropic investments of $25 million and up found that in 2015 there were 58 such bets; 17 years ago there were just 19. In partnering with many donors and nonprofit leaders over the years, we understand their rationale: It takes a bold commitment to confront some of the world’s most intractable social problems. And while big bets, small bets rarely do.

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