The Problem of Strategic Philanthropy (According to Bill Schambra)

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Editor’s Note: Below you will find a speech on the shortcomings of strategic philanthropy given last Wednesday by Bill Schambra to the Hewlett Foundation. Please also take a look at a response from Paul Brest, the former president of the foundation and current professor at Stanford Law. We welcome your own commentary.

It is rare to have such straightforward criticism invited and given to a large foundation. We congratulate all involved.


I’d like to talk a bit today about the “problem” of strategic philanthropy.

I know that I’m blundering directly into a dangerous tripwire here at the Hewlett Foundation, where, after all, strategic philanthropy is typically regarded not as a problem, but as a solution — if not the solution. But I’m sure at this forum you’ve experienced no shortage of speakers who have bought into that presupposition, and come here to urge you to press it ever further into the practice of grantmaking.

I’d like to go in the opposite direction today and suggest that strategic philanthropy does in fact bring with it some serious problems, especially for a nation that has long prided itself on the ability of its citizens to step forward and solve their own problems according to their own best lights.

The place to begin, I would suggest, is with one of the examples threaded through Money Well Spent: A Strategic Plan for Smart Philanthropy, by Paul Brest and Hal Harvey, which is surely one of the clearest and most cogent explanations of strategic philanthropy.

I should add quickly that nothing I say here today goes beyond what I’ve already said directly to Paul in several public debates, which he himself initiated.  Perhaps because he had come to Hewlett from the law, Paul was one of the extraordinarily few foundation leaders who understood that philanthropy cannot improve unless it welcomes a vigorous and thoroughgoing back-and-forth about its means and its ends. Indeed, you will have read much of what I say today already in an article in SSIR entitled “Letting Go,” by Kristi Kimball and Malka Kopell, which I gather arose from an internal debate Paul encouraged here among his own program officers.

For that sort of openness, among his many virtues as a thought leader in philanthropy, he deserves our praise and admiration. And he deserves emulation, for the deliberate cultivation of that kind of critical discourse continues to be almost entirely absent from the sector today.

Related Articles:

Bill Schambra’s Problem with Evidence-Based Philanthropy
It’s Not Herbal Tea: The Hewlett Foundation’s Balanced Approach to Strategic Philanthropy

But having said all that, I’m going to pick on him a little bit by subjecting to cross-examination his example of the Northside Neighborhood Center from Money Well Spent. In Paul’s case study, the Center approaches the hypothetical Metro Community Foundation with a request for increased funding, because for the past couple of years, there’s been a winter-time surge in demand for food and other necessities among its largely Latino clients. The Center thinks the explanation might be due to seasonal unemployment, but the far more sophisticated Foundation, Paul notes, “has doubts” about that explanation. And so the Center is sent back to survey its clients, and finds that the increased demand may result from a spike in illness during the winter, depressing workforce participation.

Much brainstorming follows, during which the public health commissioner is consulted, and he suggests the problem is tied to the seasonal increase in influenza. A theory of change is then proposed, as Paul prescribes: it is hypothesized that vaccinating breadwinners against the flu will prevent an increase in demand for the Center’s services.

From that, a logic model is constructed for how to get from here to there. Numerical estimates for results are attached to each step, culminating in a calculation of actual dollars saved by a vaccine program. Beginning with a target of 3,000 community residents, we would need to recruit Spanish-speaking outreach workers who might contact 75% of the target. Eighty percent would sign up, 60% would show up, 90% of the vaccines would be effective, leaving us with 146 workers, or 15% of our initial total, protected against the flu, who would have lost a total of $70,080 in wages during flu season.

However, we find that the estimated cost of the program—the vaccine, the outreach workers, program administration—runs $73,700, making it slightly more expensive than the lost wages averted by the vaccines. Paul notes that this “mildly disappointing calculation may inspire the community foundation and neighborhood center to consider alternative strategies.”

Well, if I were the neighborhood center, I’d be inspired to consider this alternative strategy: Never, ever waste time again approaching that community foundation for a grant—or, for that matter, any other foundation besotted with the notion of strategic philanthropy. After all, as a long-standing and reputable center of community life, we know our neighborhood. Maybe the increase in demand for our services comes from construction slowdowns, maybe from the flu, maybe from a nation-wide economic crisis, or more likely, it comes from all of these factors and countless others.

Our duty as a front-line charity isn’t to sit around and speculate about abstract explanations for human need. It’s to meet the real, everyday, concrete human needs of those coming through our doors, regardless of the bewilderingly diverse causes that bring them to us.

But the Community Foundation doesn’t seem to value that. Since it has bought into strategic philanthropy, it wants us to sit around drinking herbal tea with its staff, filling whiteboards with guesses about why people have needs, and how to avert them altogether by getting at their root causes. It puts more trust in the college degrees earned by the public health director than in our hard-won, practical, face-to-face understanding of our own community, even though he’s probably spent more time fussing over the color of his office drapes than visiting our neighborhood.

So the foundation sends us back to face the pressing needs of our neighborhood not with a check, but with a copy of Paul Brest’s book telling us how to come up with theories of change and logic models.

Finally, when we all agree that the health director’s approach isn’t so sensible after all, does the Community Foundation admit that this was a fool’s errand and make us a grant, perhaps even recompensing us for all the wasted effort? No, we’re just invited back for more herbal tea and more whiteboarding.

Now, imagine the state of the charitable sector if most of our foundations began to put their grantees through this kind of drill—that is to say, if they followed Paul’s advice. Any grant request, even one as straightforward as help with emergency assistance, could be subjected to months of speculative and fruitless cud-chewing. And if a nonprofit approaches, say, twelve foundations for support, it may expect to be entangled in twelve such ordeals in order to satisfy twelve entirely different and idiosyncratic notions about acceptable theories of change.

Even were strategic philanthropy rational at the retail level—that is, for a single foundation—it is surely irrational at the wholesale level.

Now, foundations do in fact spend a great deal of time trying to remedy the wholesale irrationality of strategic philanthropy—that is, to bring some order to its current chaotic flood of randomly accumulating, non-additive, ephemeral statistical findings. Each foundation eagerly presses the others in its field to embrace its findings and adopt its approach. Research papers are commissioned and posted on the foundation’s website. Program officers are dispatched to conferences armed with snazzy, data-filled PowerPoint presentations. Think tanks and affinity groups are funded to collect the findings and distill from them the larger truths about the human condition. After all, as Paul puts it in his book, strategic philanthropy “requires an empirical, evidence-based understanding of the external world in which the plan will operate.”

After some fifteen years of this effort, we should be able to go to Amazon and download the latest edition of Authentic Scientific Findings to Plug Into Your Theory of Change, complete with a fulsome acknowledgement of funding from the Hewlett Foundation.

And yet we find no such thing.

Why not? Part of it, of course, is the “not invented here” factor. In spite of endlessly reiterated affirmations of the pressing need in the field for cooperation, collaboration, consortium, and other virtue-laden “hard c” words, the stubborn fact is that there are many institutional incentives for each foundation to pursue its own insulated and prideful way, and very few to submit to a larger collective.

But another and more important part is the fundamental deficiency of the science-based approach to solving human problems, which lies behind strategic philanthropy.

That approach, in fact, is nothing new. It was at the heart of the first large, modern foundations like Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Russell Sage, which arose at the turn of the 20th century. It was even at the heart of the community foundation movement, as the history of the pioneering Cleveland Foundation suggests.

They too rejected the everyday wisdom of charities like Northside Neighborhood Center, because they believed that the newly developing social sciences – with their theories of change and logic models – could carry us beyond charity, to strike decisively at the root causes of social problems.

This seemed to work with the natural sciences, because there, we knew what constituted knowledge and how to go about accumulating it. But in the social sciences, it was not so clear, nor, given human nature, is it ever likely to be.

To this day, theories about the causes of human behavior multiply endlessly. We are left with many interesting and diverse schools of thought on the subject. But we have no universally accepted collection of proven findings, waiting to be plugged into our theories of change.

So foundations, enamored as they are of “cutting-edge, innovative solutions,” are forever switching from one bright, shiny causal model to another, avidly following the latest philanthropic fads.

No wonder, then, that after a century of strategic philanthropy, involving untold billions of dollars, we have in fact failed to solve even one social problem once and for all, by penetrating to its root cause.

Meanwhile, charities like the Northside Neighborhood Center continue to do the everyday, back-breaking work of helping low-income communities.

But how do we know it’s doing a good job, the die-hard strategic philanthropist insists?

Only an extremely well-educated person could be stumped by this question.

Go down to the neighborhood and check it out, armed with common sense.

Is its parking lot full of cars? Is the lobby echoing with noise, bustle and confusion? Is this where people tend to come first, when they encounter problems of any and all sorts, whether or not listed on the group’s mission statement?

Do local residents and community elders have a high opinion of it? Does the neighborhood value it enough to protect it from vandalism and graffiti, and to support it with volunteer time and small donations?

Above all, entertain the possibility that this particular community came up with this particular institutional response because it intuitively, non-scientifically understands that while it may not work everywhere and forever, it does work here, now, in its own backyard.

Entertain the possibility that local knowledge and traditional wisdom may be superior to scientific rationality when it comes to solving human problems.

In fact, entertain the possibility that “solving problems” is itself a skewed and biased framework for approaching this question, privileging expert analytical solutions, and diminishing the unspoken, accumulated, idiosyncratic wisdom of the local and immediate community.

So the next time the Northside Neighborhood Center comes in for a grant, don’t give them a lecture about needing to come up with a logic model to justify what you know they’ve been doing quite well for years. Just write the damned check.

  • Judith

    Amen, brother!

  • Lisa Machesky

    Well said!

  • Terry Fernsler

    I second that Amen, Judith. The issues and communities that nonprofits serve are complex, which means things have to be dealt with on multiple levels, otherwise we may end up transferring problems from one population to another, or creating new problems as old ones are addressed. Archaic Cartesian thinking will not begin to address complex social concerns, and often leads to contemplation without action. It also suppresses intuitive thinking, which works remarkably well when considering complexity. Thank the powers that be that most “uneducated” people intuitively grasp this.

    Third Sector Radio USA.

  • Linda

    And while the philanthropists, program officers social scientists and others search from the magic solution to the root cause for XYZ — the hungry are still hungry, the old people living in poverty are driven to sub-par nursing homes instead of supported to live in their own homes, homeless go unsheltered and poor kids continue to fail in schools.

    Strategic Philanthropy – the most inefficient and costly way NOT to get help to people in need.

  • Mazarine Treyz

    Dear NPQ,

    So glad that an idea I’ve espoused for years, that strategic philanthropy can be misguided at best, and paternalism and colonialism at worst, is finally gaining ground.

    These problems are too complex for one foundation with the best intentions to sort out, no matter how much research they do.

    I’ve written about high-impact and strategic philanthropy, here:

    And so has Phil Cubeta, professor of Philanthropy at American university, and writer at GiftHub.

    I’d love to see your comments on what we’ve said previously about this.


    Mazarine Treyz
    Author, The Wild Woman’s Guide to Fundraising
    Wild Woman

  • Brad

    How many charities that had grand potential to do good (not eradication of a problem – as any charity that claims eradication, is fundamentally flawed in my opinion) have folded because no foundation would look at them? Empirical data that shows how an organization will solve a problem doesn’t exist. Any data that claims this, is rigged and skewed to a goal. There is no organization that uses the same data, for every grant they apply for. And if you are not using the same data for every grant, how empirical can it really be?

    Does their cause speak to you? Do their actions make you feel like you are doing good? Are they responsible with the money they have raised? These are the questions that should be answered when deciding on giving.

  • Neill Archer Roan

    It is so very meaningful to read this set of insights and conclusions. Thank you.

  • Paul Schmitz

    Bill, thank you for a provocative speech that I hope will generate much more discussion and debate in the sector. It seems that in the last decade the science of solving social problems has dominated and the art of building community has fallen out of favor. But those applying the most science to social problems tend to believe in linear causality and forget that problems are inter-related or that an outcome achieved today can be lost tomorrow as people’s lives change constantly. Problems are complex, inter-related, and constantly changing. It is good that there be better management, better results, and better solutions in the social sector, but that must be balanced with greater trust in, engagement oft, and accountability to the communities served. The only sustainable solution is a community where people work together and with the help of organizations when they choose to address the issues in their lives. We need to have more debate about the science has missed and re-calibrate professionalized service with stronger community.

  • Elizabeth at Insaan

    Excellent piece. Thank you.

    I do think that there is a lot of room here in between paint-by-numbers philanthropy, which takes a totally quantitative approach, and listen-to-your-heart philanthropy which you characterize as giving to those in need without “over” thinking it.

    True, it’s a fine balance between over-thinking and not thinking enough, but one way that we can really check ourselves is by working through these issues with the end-users and the grant recipients. Involve them in this discussion. Involve them in finding solutions. We don’t need to shove spreadsheets and maps in their faces and demand that they accept the dimension of the story that we find compelling based on the limited facts that we have. We can sit down with them, talk about root causes, and ask them to help us problem-solve so we find a sustainable solution.

    Listen to people, to get a fuller picture not only of the qualitative state of affairs, but the numbers involved. For example, you might find that vaccine uptake is very low in the community and you’d need to do a lot of canvassing to get people to take the shots, and that would cost more money. Or you might find that the lost work is costing them much, much more than coats and copays and so on, so the whole analysis is changed.

    This brings me to my second point, which is your maligning of social sciences. Bear with me here, for I will get a bit theoretical.

    The fact is, the “hard” sciences tell us a lot, but we still only have an absolutely teeny, tiny picture of the universe, of its history, of everything. We think we know a lot compared to the ancients, and we do. But our pride in this regard is only due to the physical sciences leaping up to where social science and political knowledge already was, due to our familiarity with the subject matter. Just as the number of planets seems like no big deal to us now, it was once considered amazingly advanced knowledge. Plato’s theses about atoms was extremely rudimentary compared to what we have now, but since he had the same tools as all people to observe human composition, relationships, and behavior, our understanding is very similar to his. All of social science is still confirming what most people know by “common sense”, which is really just familiarity (they suppose) with the subject matter.

    But this does not in any way suggest that social science is less clear than any other science. There is heated debate in every single field of science. If there were a field without heated debate regarding the details, it would not be considered a science. Astrophysics, chemistry, biology, geology–there is not a single field in which there is total agreement about how things work, although we have a number of working theories. So the uncertainty of social science should not be contrasted with some imaginary “certain” field of science. Indeed, its uncertainty is its strength, for it implies that we are constantly refining our theories.

    True, the social sciences have long overlapped with the *humanities*, such as philology and philosophy. However, that simply speaks to the debate on the significance of the qualia being studied, which, incidentally, is also done in physics. For example, if we look at the world in infrared, we see a number of different objects and relationships. There is an existing debate about which qualia to consider when mapping certain types of astrophysical objects. This does not imply that there will never be an answer. It just implies that we are still sorting out our hypotheses and the ever-growing body of knowledge we have at our disposal.

    At Insaan we combine humility and respect for persons on the ground–the end-users, the customers, the beneficiaries, the social entrepreneur, the service provider–and a desire to go further with human knowledge. We believe in social science as a field but we also know that science requires information, and in the case of people, we have these amazing subjects that can tell us about themselves. Imagine if the stars could tell you where they’d been, what happened to them, and how they felt in English. That is what we have, when we do our work. Mixed methods is an old but ever-emerging field, in part because people do so like to come down on one side or the other of the age-old “quantitative vs. qualitative” debate. I think it is a silly debate. How could a biologist study cells without recording their features, naming their parts, observing their actions? Yes, it is quantified, but it is also qualified.

    The best science, and thus the best decision making, is done not by numbers or qualities alone, but by continual and repeated examination of all aspects of a system, and repeated iterations in which everyone is heard and has a chance to contribute.

    While your criticism of an overly quantitative approach is sound, I hope that you will consider a more nuanced solution.

    Sorry for the tome!

  • Fred

    How about writing the check but then also asking the organization: “what can we do for you in the long-term?” There is something to be said for foundations giving a leg up for nonprofits to do what they do, but also giving them the space to think bigger or more systematically, if that would be of interest to them.

  • Peggy Outon

    Can you hear me singing the Hallelujah Chorus? Is it possible that we are seeing a shift back to respect and trust in community- based organizations? After twenty five years as a MSO Director with more than 1,000 nonprofits as my personal clients, my heart leaps up at the final sentence…”Write the check!”, save the babies in the river…

    Of course, we need to better understand root causes, but we need to take a respectful position to people who have given their lives in service and believe that they are not fools who are wasting resources, but rather allies to all who believe we needed more justice and are willing to put their backs into seeing that it happens!

  • Linda Frischmeyer

    “Go down to the neighborhood and check it out, armed with common sense.” Like! Even if research exists and can be provided, I would like to see direct observation and common sense supplement/support it…

  • CeeBee

    While I generally agree with the sentiment behind “write the check,” we have to acknowledge that we learned something through the initial client survey required by the foundation. I take away a few nuggets from this speech, which was great reading by the way, and added to the royalties earned by Brest/Harvey for “Money Well Spent.” Just bought the kindle version.

    -Foundations shouldn’t have to ask organizations to survey their customers. This should be a routine part of doing business. Please don’t base a request for support on a hunch. Too many organizations fall into the trap of doing what they’ve always done, providing services they are able to provide based on the current capabilities of their talent pool. Don’t be so quick to call bustling waiting and classrooms and full parking lots success. Unlike the for profit sector, there likely is no competition, so voting with your feet is not an option. Operating according to an nternally created reality is a sure path to lethargy and irrelevance.

    -In addition to writing the check to the Center, the foundation should write more checks for flu shots to other centers in other neighborhoods. Going even further, the foundation should find a way to share what they are learning with its peers that work in those other neighborhoods, so that more checks can be written.

  • Ross

    I don’t understand why this is framed as an “either, or” issue and not an “and” issue. Philanthropy at its best meets immediate needs (e.g., housing the homeless) while pushing for longer-term solutions (e.g., how can we prevent people from becoming homeless?). Sure, let’s not focus exclusively on the latter. But let’s not make the same mistake with the former.

  • DaAnne Smith

    As an executive director who’s on the front lines of fighting poverty, domestic violence, and mult-generational dysfunction in single parent families, I found William’s speech very refreshing. While I appreciate strategies gleaned from a 50,000 foot view, we also need foundations to witness the battle against chronic social problems on the ground too. I cherish those foundations who take the time to witness our work and impact in strengthening this underserved population, and then who choose to partner with us.

  • Ron Wormser

    Whatever the label, from my perspective of almost 5 decades of grant-seeking that there have been two persistent trends among at least the larger and more staffed foundations: one, addressed in the article, has been the evolution from tactical to strategic giving (or from the micro to an ever- larger macro perspective), and the other has been a parallel evolution from a fundamentally passive role (listing areas of interest and responding to proposals) to an increasingly proactive role (drawing increasingly specific program guidelines to engaging with directly with applicants reshaping the work to be done), from a supportive donor to an engaged partner.

    More recently, a third trend has evolved: rather than giving funds to an existing grant-making entity or even setting up family foundations, donors (typically younger wealth) are creating their own ‘social enterprises’ and ‘hybrids’ (e.g. B corporations) to ‘do good’ directly versus supporting existing nonprofits.

    Whatever benefits may come from these trends down the line, one immediate consequence has been increasingly fewer resources directed to meeting immediate needs, which is to say that “doing more with less” began before the financial market downturn and subsequent recession.

    My expectation is that these trends are ensconced, irreversible and may even eventually prove to have been of some value in terms of improving the quality of life of those for whom philanthropy historically was conceived.

    In taking the larger and inherently longer view, those in need today ought not to be forgotten. However ‘philanthropy’ comes to be expanded in concept and in action, its original fundamental concept of ‘charity’ must remain rather than be reduced.

  • Mazarine Treyz, Author, The Wild Woman’s Guide to Fundraising

    Dear Paul,

    I really liked your comment, so I quoted it in my response blog post today:

    For the commenter from INSAAN, who thinks that what Mr. Schambra suggests is anti-science, or anti-evidence-based outcomes focused, I have research to back up why this is not true.



  • Paul T Hogan

    With over 18 years in the non-profit sector, I empathize with the “write the check” impulse. As I now complete 12 years ‘on the dark side’ of philanthropy, I also empathize with philanthropy’s need to understand what impact granted funds have. Evaluation (or outcomes, or strategic investing, or whatever else it’s called), exactly like testing in schools, has become an entrenched cottage industry.

    It is very difficult to resist the siren song of ‘demonstrable impact’ for either side of this — the non-profits or the foundations. The reality as I see it, and as has been stated, is that linear connections between a certain amount of money over a certain amount of time and sustainable change cannot be made. Change is accomplished only via many interventions over a long period of time, relying on the work of many different stakeholders and supporters. “It takes a village” definitely applies.

    But that does NOT mean that it is useless to try to understand either overall change or the components of change. It only means that the wrong things are most likely being measured. In my view, what is overlooked by philanthropy is that the funds we give are to the organization, not the work on the ground. That is, our point of influence is actually within the walls of the non-profit. We want to believe that we have an impact on the issues we address, but the reality is that the organization has the impact, or not. We can only support the organization in their work.

    While that may lead many to reaffirm the ‘just write the check’ admonition, the further reality is that MANY non-profit organizations are badly managed, sometimes willfully. Philanthropy’s desire to show impact may be ultimately absurd on a grant-to-grant basis, but it is no less absurd than the non-profit stance of ‘just trust us, we know what we’re doing.’ Many do, many don’t. Philanthropy’s most productive (though not only) role, I believe, is in focusing on the performance and the development of the non-profit as an organization. That would mean things like leadership (staff and board) development, infrastructure improvements, research assistance, network development, and the like. Being certain that any funds used for programs have the greatest possible chance of having the greatest possible impact.

    I agree that philanthropy needs to be more actively engaged with and present in non-profit work in order to understand both what’s needed and what’s NOT needed. But it’s also incumbent on non-profits to understand that philanthropy has an obligation — both to itself and to the organizations it supports — to find a way to understand that whatever is being done with the money is the most appropriate work that can be done.

  • Mat Despard

    I appreciate Schambra’s critique of strategic philanthropy, in the same way that I love to hear critiques of social entrepreneurship. Using Schambra’s example of Northside Neighborhood Center, sure, I absolutely agree that the Center should just receive funding to help meet the needs of people walking through their door. But were Northside to also have an employment training and placement program for formerly incarcerated persons, wouldn’t Northside want this program to use best available evidence to guide its efforts – as well as consulting the community and, most importantly, the prospective users of this program? And wouldn’t Northside want to learn what does and does not work once the program starts – even if this is done using qualitative methods only? My point is that in criticizing strategic philanthropy, Schambra seems to imply that nonprofits abandon community assessment, program planning and evaluation, and organizational learning in favor of honoring local wisdom and running programs by intuition. I really don’t think it’s an either/or proposition and it depends entirely on the nature of the work the nonprofit is engaged in and the community it is serving.

  • Kevin Schoeler

    A great read…K

  • Peter Schultz

    Bravo, Bill Schambra! You were the brightest bulb in grad school and you haven’t lost any wattage over the years since. I have little, actually NO, expertise in this subject but think your take makes much more sense than the alternative. And I just love how you pull no punches. Herbert Storing is smiling, I am sure, as is Marty Diamond.