Maximizing the Potential of Social Impact Initiatives
What happens when you locate a global social impact prize at a top-tier business school nested within a world-class research university? Over the past several years, we have been exploring exactly that question.
In 2011, Wharton School alumnus Barry Lipman approached the University of Pennsylvania’s senior leadership with an ambitious proposal. He wanted to fund a global social impact prize, administered by the University, that would connect those on the cusp of great change with resources, skills, and people-power to expand the impact and influence of their ideas. He also hoped to provide a parallel learning opportunity for students, to nurture the next generation of social-impact leaders.
That big idea became reality in 2011 with the launch of the Barry & Marie Lipman Family Prize. Supported by both the University of Pennsylvania and the Wharton School, the global prize’s management team resides within Wharton’s McNulty Leadership Program.
Each year, we award $350,000 in unrestricted cash to three social impact organizations. The grand prize winner receives $250,000, while two honorees receive $50,000 each. All three organizations receive an additional package of non-monetary rewards including executive style leadership training from Wharton’s Executive Education Program, educational opportunities from The Nonprofit Leadership Program at the School of Social Policy and Practice, and hands-on help from the Lipman Fellows, an elite interdisciplinary team of graduate students from 6 of the 12 schools at Penn. Those fellows conduct organizational audits, write case studies, and develop strategies to accelerate game-changing solutions with training and support from the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, and other academic and business resources within the UPenn community.
Along the way, we’ve gained a few valuable insights that others may find useful.
First and foremost, the network building work within the university setting has been slow to realize. The decentralized nature of research institutions does not lend itself to top-down mandates or centralized initiatives, so we find ourselves practicing retail politics. We build relationships and consensus one person at a time by meeting with key stakeholders individually and in small groups. This lesson will likely resonate with anyone who needs to develop goodwill with numerous colleagues scattered across different departments in a large, complex organization. My best advice? Be patient.
Secondly, the layered model of the Lipman Family Prize (applicants/honorees, fellows, and networking partners) makes it more challenging – and more imperative – to maintain fidelity with our bottom line deliverable. For us, the primary box we must tick is running a well-regarded social impact prize. We want the Lipman Family Prize to be a game-changer for our honorees, so we can show the world what’s possible when we equip cutting-edge change-makers to build on and expand promising solutions. It takes time to build that kind of track record, but that is our clear end goal.
We want the Lipman Family Prize to be a game-changer for our honorees, so we can show the world what’s possible when we equip cutting-edge change-makers to build on and expand promising solutions.
We developed the Lipman Fellows program initially as a complement to the prize. Through trial and error, continual refinement, and donor commitment, the two became integrally linked. Managing the complexity and potential buried within that marriage has most often felt like balancing scales. The design of our philanthropic process affects student learning, and vice versa. The educational and social impact elements exist in an ecosystem that also includes Penn’s network of experts and resources. Rather than acting as separate products or services that have been thrust together, each element informs and affects the others, driving future endeavors and possibilities. We are most successful when we keep our eye on the Prize while nurturing the ecosystem that supports it.
Finally, we have learned a lot about the nature of helping, which – at its core – is what philanthropy is meant to be. Philanthropists support the causes and organizations that are most important and promising to them. Determining the best way to help the organizations that we believe in is ongoing work.
Over the past five years, I have become convinced that the best approach I can take here is to invite the organizations themselves to guide the process. When I started this role, I focused primarily on the skills and resources most prevalent at the University and within its network. That knowledge certainly has helped guide the parameters of the types of support we offer, as well as which opportunities we make available universally. However, to ensure that our efforts are timely and worth our honorees’ efforts to participate, we need to have a conversation that puts the organization and its priorities at the center. We must both build a package of reliably-delivered supports, and develop a tailored approach to setting priorities for our engagement.
One strong example of our prize model at work is our ongoing relationship with Breakthrough, an organization that works to prevent violence against women worldwide by transforming the norms and cultures that enable it. We have been supporting their growth since 2014, when they received the Lipman Family Prize. We have provided Executive Education programming from Wharton, program design support for one of their leadership development initiatives, and promotion on campus media channels and at Wharton’s annual Leadership conference.
During that same time, Breakthrough has launched and led numerous culture-jamming campaigns around the world. Their #askingforit multimedia campaign helped more than 700,000 people identify and respond to sexual harassment in India using street theatre, bus ads, and school-based workshops. Their #NoMayPac campaign piggy-backed on the Mayweather/Pacquiao “fight of the century” to reach more than 50 million people with the message that domestic violence is unacceptable. They launched The G WORD, an online storytelling platform that links together real people’s stories to highlight the connection between gender norms and gender based violence.
Last April, Breakthrough received the Skoll Award, marking a new phase in its global recognition and ascension as a thought leader in the social justice field. While they are certainly responsible for their own accolades, we are honored to be a diligent partner in their growth. Their story exemplifies the potential of this evolving philanthropic model. We haven’t yet figured out all the answers, but we can already see that when we connect change-makers with the right resources, they bring innovative ideas to new places and problems around the world.
Feature Image: Barry Lipman speaking at the Lipman Family Prize inaugural event.