It’s Not Herbal Tea: The Hewlett Foundation’s Balanced Approach to Strategic Philanthropy

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At the Hewlett Foundation, we think it’s important to hear from—and listen to—people who disagree with us or approach philanthropy differently, which is why we were delighted to invite Bill Schambra to speak. He is one in a series of speakers we have brought or are bringing to the Foundation, each with a perspective different from our own.

Hewlett has long championed a particular version of strategic philanthropy. It is described in a paper authored by my predecessor, Paul Brest, found on our website. My own preliminary thoughts and reactions to Hewlett’s practice, and to strategic philanthropy generally, are the subject of an upcoming statement that will preface our 2012 Annual Report. Ongoing self-evaluation and criticism are important, and I raise a number of issues for reflection—though, as the statement should make clear, we have no plans to significantly alter a process of grantmaking that has so far served us and those we support very well.

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Bill Schambra’s Problem with Evidence-Based Philanthropy

The Problem of Strategic Philanthropy (According to Bill Schambra)

It takes no great insight to realize that the strategic approach to philanthropy can, like any and every other approach, be done poorly. But it can also be done well. Which is why, as someone still relatively new to the world of philanthropy, I find Bill’s speech ultimately un-illuminating. He paints with far too broad a brush. It would have been better to expend less energy on jabs about herbal tea and whiteboards and more trying to develop points that seem valid, especially the risk that strategic philanthropists may place excessive reliance on theoretical models developed by academic experts. In the end, however, Bill is not opposed to expertise. He merely favors one kind of expertise, based on local knowledge and experience, over another, based on broader study and more systematic analysis of data.

It is undoubtedly true that one can misstep, and badly, by approaching problems in an overly abstract manner, without paying attention to local knowledge and circumstances. But one can also misstep, and just as badly, by relying on the unsystematic anecdotal experience of local participants. A sensible approach relies on both: drawing on systematized knowledge acquired by trained professionals as well as local experience and beliefs, using each to test and inform the other. An across-the-board rejection of the social sciences is just plain foolishness, precisely the kind of overconfidence and arrogance Bill rightly urges us to avoid, and hardly likely to solve anyone’s problems.

Larry Kramer became president of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park, California, in September 2012. Before joining the Foundation, Mr. Kramer served from 2004 to 2012 as Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean of Stanford Law School. Mr. Kramer is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the American Philosophical Society and the American Law Institute. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including The People Themselves: Popular Constitutionalism and Judicial Review.