In recent years, there has been pushback against what has been dubbed “band-aid philanthropy,” referring to charitable work that focuses on surface-level solutions rather than systemic changes to address underlying issues. For example, homeless shelters are often considered a temporary solution to homelessness. They do not address poverty, joblessness, or hunger—root causes of homelessness—directly.
This pushback has resulted in more strategic giving that does not waste time on “band-aids” and instead invests in more permanent solutions. However, this shift may have been too dramatic, as some industry experts, including the founder of Inside Philanthropy, have recently pointed out.
Problems Inherent in the High-Risk, High-Reward View of Giving
These experts say that the quest of scalability and upstream solutions have left people vulnerable to downstream effects. In reality, both approaches are necessary. Unfortunately, current trends only reward philanthropists for their innovation, not their work to alleviate immediate suffering. This has resulted in many bad investments that target the wrong root problems and waste money that could be used to solve concrete issues.
In reality, strategic giving is only possible after donors become intimately acquainted with a given cause, which often means starting with band-aid philanthropy to build relationships and gain the perspective needed to make bigger bets in the future.
Another issue involves the amount of funding coming from major donors. Strategic giving has actually resulted in lower grant total, since innovative solutions generally involve small-scale programs that can absorb only a limited amount of money. On the other hand, some forms of band-aid giving, such as vaccination programs, could easily use millions—or even billions—of dollars. While some argue that this money goes to waste, given that it does not result in sustainable change, vaccinations do address the immediate issue of halting the spread of disease.
Philanthropists should ideally divide their giving between long-term and short-term solutions, but the current climate of the sector often discourages band-aid giving, which has resulted in smaller donations all around.
The Potential Good of a High-Risk, High-Reward Mindset
Importantly, high-risk giving with the potential for significant reward is likely a good direction for philanthropy in the long run. The push for scalable innovation has raised the bar for risk-taking. Historically, major foundations have only made large grants for projects that had a high likelihood of succeeding and generating a significant impact, while high-risk grants with the potential for even larger impact were considered unwise investments. Today, with a bigger emphasis on innovation, foundations have become more willing to invest in novel solutions that may or may not work.
Moving forward, it is likely that many of the innovative plans will fail. However, the grants that pan out will have enough of an impact to compensate for the projects that don’t. The ways in which the field of philanthropy has evolved in recent years make it more acceptable to make a risky grant with a low likelihood of success. Those in the field have even begun talking about how large foundations can restructure in such a way that makes taking big risks easier and more palatable to donors. While all this has a lot of potential for good, it is important for these organizations not to get distracted by the drive to stand out with big bets so much that they ignore proven, cost-effective strategies.
Reframing Band-Aid Philanthropy to Honor Its Impact
Among some philanthropists, there has been a mounting sense that only innovative projects are of value, which can have the unintended effect of making longtime global health initiatives like mosquito nets seem outdated. Thinking of vaccination programs, parasite treatments, and similar efforts as mere band-aids is reflective of an unhealthy shift in thinking. These efforts have an important and immediate impact on people in need, and attending to these needs should not be undervalued. Sometimes, short-term needs should take precedence over long-term aims, or at least be balanced with them.
Perhaps the best way to reframe so-called band-aid philanthropy is to think about it from the perspective of the people being helped. A family living in a place where malaria is endemic may not have the means necessary to keep safe from the disease. For these individuals, a mosquito net is not just a band-aid but a lasting solution to a real, immediate problem. Cash donations can change lives, from making it possible to seek medical treatment to getting the seed funding necessary to start a business that lifts a family out of poverty. These individuals would never think of this sort of giving as a band-aid, and for philanthropists to think badly of this type of giving does them a disservice.