Posted: 22 Mar. 2021 2 min. read

Strategic philanthropy is smart but not wise

By Katherine Fulton, managing director (Deloitte LLP)

Strategic philanthropy is smart but not wise. That is why so many seasoned social change leaders have voiced doubts about it, publicly and privately, since it gained prominence and adherents. Peel away the theory the authors now expound, and what you have is praiseworthy common sense. Their argument is both well articulated and overdue.

That said, knowing what to do and being able to do it are two fundamentally different things. The approach outlined here only hints at what will be required to implement it, as our work over the past decade at Monitor Institute has taught us.

Strategic philanthropy has rightly aspired to intellectual rigor about the “what” and the “why” of social change, rejecting vague claims and a reliance on good intentions. But the hard-earned wisdom of practice reveals that lasting change nearly always relies on mastery of the “how” and the “who,” regardless whether the problem is simple, complicated, or complex. The human system, therefore, is as important as the problem system, as John Kania, Mark Kramer, and Patty Russell acknowledge in their article. That might seem obvious, but designing an approach that honors this insight is incredibly hard to do well in any environment, and especially within the staffing and governance constraints that are typical in foundations.

Let’s take the author’s central example as a case in point: the Rockefeller Foundation impact investing initiative. As it happens, I led the Monitor Institute team that supported Antony Bugg-Levine, Judith Rodin, and others at Rockefeller as their strategy emerged, ultimately leading to the formation of the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN), where I served on the board with Antony until recently.

Any case example must be short. In this case, however, the broader narrative cloaks as much as it reveals. Here are two quick additions to illustrate what success will require:

  • Rockefeller had a strategy. It just didn’t have a very precise strategic plan. (For more on the differences between the two, see “The strategic plan is dead. Long live strategy,” by Dana O’Donovan and Noah Rimland Flower, SSIR, Jan. 10, 2013.) Bugg-Levine and his team created strong hypotheses based on research and the insights of well-designed strategic conversations. The rigor paid off. Trusting emergence does not mean relaxing intellectual standards or simply improvising. It does mean remaining open to testing not only your precise solutions but your understanding of the problem you are addressing as well. As you experiment, you learn about the problem system, which may force you to question whether you have even articulated the right goal, or misjudged what it will take to succeed. Time and again, this is what our clients are learning—and the lesson runs counter to strategic philanthropy’s central thrust. Transformative social change requires confronting messy political, social, and human realities, with a strong tolerance for ambiguity and a keen eye for the dynamic contextual forces that can be harnessed for your ends. That’s why many of us are busy creating tools, concepts, and approaches to replace or supplement logic models while boosting strategic learning.
  • If the aspiration is to make a change, not just grants, foundations must seek out and then empower a particular type of leader who works close to the front lines. In the impact investing case, Bugg-Levine and his team knitted a new community together across lines of sector, geography, and issue, encouraging and cajoling them into aligning their actions in crucial ways. This work was incredibly time-consuming and required unusual skill, both in building relationships and adapting on the fly as conditions changed. Bugg-Levine had the freedom to do that work because Rockefeller’s leaders had the courage to take risks and to trust him. Will foundations have the courage to invest in and trust the leaders who have the knowledge, networks, and skills to drive a change agenda—whether they work directly for the foundation or not? Unless they do, the theory espoused in this essay will remain just that—a theory.

Change cannot be controlled. It can’t be distilled into a recipe that anyone can follow. That is clearly one of the lessons of strategic philanthropy’s evolution so far. We must learn to work together in new ways to guide and cultivate change—to master sensibilities and skills that remain too rare in philanthropy today.

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