The Power of Critical Mass

 A core of plutonium nested in an assembly designed to push the plutonium to the critical point (re-creation). Credit:  Los Alamos National Laboratory .

A core of plutonium nested in an assembly designed to push the plutonium to the critical point (re-creation). Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory.

We often say that an event needs ‘critical mass’ to succeed. Or that volunteer committee activity will ramp up when we have critical mass around the table. What do we really mean, and how does this concept apply to pre-exit philanthropy? 

Technically, the term ‘critical mass’ refers to the material needed to sustain a nuclear chain reaction.

A hunk of radioactive material is said to be ‘critical’ when a neutron is knocked out of an atom, which in turn bashes into another nearby atom, knocking out another neutron or two, which hit other atoms, and so on. Each time this spurs the expulsion of a neutron in a nearby atom, creating a continual nuclear reaction. The process creates vast amounts of energy. 

At any point, if there’s enough energy to knock a neutron out of that first atom — ZAP! — but there’s no other atom nearby to become involved in the crash, the reaction stops. 

Few aspects of nuclear history are more spellbinding and eerie than Manhattan Project-era experiments trying to make a lump of metal go critical. How much do you need? Do you need less if it’s extremely pure? What if you design a system that reflects the escaped neutrons back onto the mass, forcing them to encounter nearby atoms more often? Whoa! 

So, what’s lesson here for pre-exit philanthropy? Critical mass has some concepts in common with “virality,” which we see everyday in our social media feeds. But critical mass is a more useful analogy for us because it begins with raw materials (our alumni community) which are affected by the conditions (our pre-exit philanthropy program) we put in place. We can design for criticality. We can only hope for viral success.

Every institution has the raw materials. Raw material plus thoughtful design can help sustain the energy of a program with a lower investment of resources — very important in the pre-exit philanthropy environment. To achieve critical mass, you need to understand the shape, size, and density of your entrepreneurial community. How do your alums interact with the startup scene on campus? How do you want that to change or increase? What interventions can you create to foster that?

Design your program well, and you will create a sustained pipeline of new donors who self- or peer-solicit. When your core membership ‘goes critical,’ it will maintain steady-state or even grow during those periods when you may not be able to focus on new solicitations. 

I almost dropped the phone the first time I got a call from a startup founder who said “I heard you were the one to talk to if I wanted to get into this group.” Donors seek out this program — I’ve seen it multiple times, in separate institutions. Alumni have asked me whether they are eligible to join; if their gift will be large enough; if they could join quickly because their company was in the process of getting acquired. 

At times you’ll build your pre-exit philanthropy program in intensive sprints. Other times, you will need to concentrate on your traditional portfolio work. If your program has critical mass— a core membership of influencers, emerging entrepreneurs, at companies both known and just starting out — and events or connections that focus the ‘reactions’ between them, you’ll give your program a chance to fuel its own growth.

 → Related: see Why it Works: University Research and Pre-Exit Philanthropy for a discussion on business platforms and how their principles apply to this work. 

Your work as you begin, then, is to map out all of these factors — the characteristics of your prospect base, top prospects in desired segments, core interactions, etc. And then give your ‘atoms’ a spark. 

The analogy isn’t precise. There is no pre-exit philanthropy analogue to the darker side of atomic history. And I’m sure that I’ve simplified the science imperfectly here. But then again, I’m not a nuclear physicist, I merely fall into holes on the Internet like everybody else.

When your core membership ‘goes critical,’ it will maintain steady-state or even grow during those periods when you may not be able to focus on new solicitations.