Is Strategic Philanthropy Yesterday’s News?

 

Highway signs

As I read the lead article in the latest issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review, “Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World,” by John Kania, Mark Kramer, and Patty Russell, I tried to imagine what it would feel like to do so from the vantage point of the director of a small nonprofit:

It’s been a long day, as usual. Way too much need; nowhere near enough staff or resources. But since I’m not only the CEO but also the chief fundraiser, my work is hardly done. I’ve brought home an armload of grant paperwork, which keeps me from that bottle of Chardonnay chilling in the fridge. One of the largest local foundations has been a solid supporter over the years, and because we have a solid reputation in the community, our relationship has been relatively uncomplicated. But those days are long gone—hence the armload of paperwork.

For the foundation is adopting the techniques of “strategic philanthropy.” I’d been hearing about that approach for ten years at various conferences, though it’s taken a while, thank God, to reach our town. But now, our program officer assures me, everything’s up-to-date at the foundation. (“But this isn’t Kansas City,” I quipped at the time, before recalling there’s no way such a youngster would get the reference to Oklahoma!.) Henceforth, she maintained, the foundation’s CEO and board are going to insist on clear and measureable progress toward objective results, with quarterly updates.

I glance over the new requirements: We’ll have to describe our work in terms of a theory of change, a logic model, metrics, ways of making explicit how what we do logically causes a measureable effect. We’ll then have numerous meetings with program staff to see if we can wedge our work into their own theory of change, for we now have to fit into that new comprehensive coalition to address the concerns we’ve been dealing with for years. Then more meetings with our coalition partners—allegedly to share “learnings,” but actually occasions for our funding competitors to suck up to foundation staff. Two years from now, we can expect a formal evaluation of our program.

I reflect briefly on the sea of problems I’ve seen today and wonder how on earth I’m going to jam our work into the procrustean bed of a theory of change. Oh sure, we have a nominal, crisp mission statement, but our clients show up every day with innumerable and infinitely varied needs, which we do our best to meet with what we’ve got. Do we now have to trim all that “off-mission” work out of our causal chain, even though it’s earned us an enviable reputation for being one of the town’s most flexible, responsive and humane nonprofits? Is the grant we’re hoping to get worth the butchery I’m about to inflict on the reality of our everyday work?

Deep sigh. Maybe I should straighten up my desk first, check my email, anything to postpone this agony.

Ah! An email link to the latest issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review. I can even chalk this distraction up to continuing ed. The subscription was a gift from the foundation; they wanted me to be plugged into the latest developments in this new world of strategic philanthropy. I try to suppress the bitter thought that the spiffy graphics for this one issue alone probably cost more than our entire annual budget.

And here’s something that might even be helpful for the evening’s task: “Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World.” John Kania, Mark Kramer, Patty Russell—all names I’ve heard many times at conferences. Maybe they appreciate what I’m up against.

But almost immediately, I come across these two paragraphs:

We have now come to the conclusion that if funders are to make greater progress in meeting society’s urgent challenges, they must move beyond today’s rigid and predictive model of strategy to a more nuanced model of emergent strategy that better aligns with the complex nature of social progress.

The more foundations embrace strategic philanthropy, the clearer its limitations become. As practiced today, strategic philanthropy assumes that outcomes arise from a linear chain of causation that can be predicted, attributed, and repeated, even though we know that social change is often unpredictable, multifaceted, and idiosyncratic. It locks funders into a rigid multi-year agenda, although the probability and desirability of achieving any given outcome waxes and wanes over time. Rigorous evaluations attempt to isolate the impact of solitary interventions without effective models of dissemination. And the forced simplicity of logic models often misleads funders to overlook the complex dynamics and interpersonal relationships among numerous nonprofit, for-profit, and government actors that determine real world events.

Wait…what? My program officer had assured me that logic models and theories of change and chains of cause and effect were the wave of the future! But here the journal she so strongly recommends is saying that they’re so yesterday—flawed, inadequate, Newtonian, outdated. So I’m committing my organization to an approach that the experts tell me is rigid, simplistic, useless. Of course, I could have told them that, based on my everyday experience. Maybe I could just send this link to my program officer along with an invitation to spend a day at my office. That’d show her how off-track her employer is! I’ll bet that’s not the sort of feedback they said they welcomed. I’ll also bet this work would go a lot better with a glass of that Chardonnay….

 

The authors of “Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World” were probably not considering the incredulous reaction of nonprofit CEOs when they wrote such a scathing indictment of the past two decades of foundation practice. But it’s a view that must be taken into account, for the true damage from this deeply flawed approach must ultimately be borne by frontline nonprofits, who were so often compelled to adopt it by their funders.

The Ford Foundation’s new CEO Darren Walker provides non-fiction confirmation of that damage in his response to the SSIR article. Recalling his days as a grantee at Harlem’s Abyssinian Development Corporation, he notes that he and his colleagues “sometimes felt imprisoned by logic frameworks, theories of change, and elegant PowerPoint decks that sought to oversimplify how our neighborhood revitalization programs would affect our community.” He argues that “the heart of our sector’s challenge is that ‘strategic philanthropy’ too often minimizes or ignores complexity because it is too difficult to understand, predict, and factor into a formula.”

To their credit, the authors admit that they were once champions of this approach, even though they “repeatedly felt a nagging suspicion that the conventional tools of strategic philanthropy just don’t fit the realities of social change in a complex world.”

But as scholars and consultants, they are able to walk away from the damage their product has done. Indeed, they’re now selling a new version of strategic philanthropy that, they assure us, is vastly superior to the old one. Among the sophisticated mega-foundations that are early adopters of the latest management trends, contracts are no doubt even now being drawn up for the expensive counsel they will need to remain at the cutting edge of social change.

But far down in the trenches, strategic philanthropy in its earlier crude, rigid, cause/effect form is only now consolidating its hold. It’s all the cruder and more rigid, of course, because it’s so often applied by program officers who themselves were only hastily drilled in the fundamentals at a couple of regional association workshops. They cannot be counted on to keep up with the subtler and more nuanced versions of strategy preached by the leading theorists in the latest issue of SSIR. So just as “old” strategic philanthropy is finally penetrating to the outermost reaches of civil society, this vast, shambling theoretical framework has suddenly been shaken at its core by the apostasy of some of its leading practitioners, writing the lead article in strategic philanthropy’s flagship journal.

To be sure, Kania, Kramer and Russell deny that what they’ve said has any relevance to our fictional nonprofit CEO. After all, they argue, the cruder forms of strategic philanthropy still apply to both “simple” problems like building a hospital and even “complicated” problems like developing a vaccine. For “complex” problems, though, an entirely new approach is needed. Such problems are “dynamic, nonlinear, and counter-intuitive,” the “result of the interplay between multiple independent factors that influence each other in ever-changing ways.” They demand an “emergent” strategy, possessing a broad sense of the ends to be achieved, tempered by a great deal of flexibility, adaptability, and collaboration in the means for reaching them.

As Darren Walker’s response suggests, however, the notion that good work within any organization, no matter how small, can be captured and measured by crude cause/effect equations reflects a seriously deficient and even insulting understanding of what nonprofits do. That work is embedded in and must contend with an incredibly complex world, reflected in the countless permutations of human need they must face every day, even within the boundaries of their proclaimed expertise.

The best front line organizations, as Lisbeth Schorr reminds us, find ways to adapt to that complexity in their work. They ignore rigid bureaucratic strictures and standard operating procedures. They rely instead on experience and trained intuition to figure out solutions that are responsive, flexible, and imaginative. That’s why the best foundations have never sought to shackle their grantees within the confined formulas of strategic philanthropy. Rather, they have trusted them with general operating support extending over multiple years, with maximum flexibility and minimal reporting requirements.

But most foundation grants have never followed that pattern. For the “old” strategic philanthropy, no matter how crude or unrealistic it might be, does in fact meet some critical organizational needs in the life of the average foundation. We describe its penchant for “command and control” as if that’s a bad thing, for instance, since it’s now associated with a top-down, bureaucratic corporate approach largely discredited within business and government as well as philanthropy. Nonetheless, command and control have their attractions, especially for members of the board.

Before strategic philanthropy showed up, those board members were often manifestly frustrated by the way foundations were managed. Coming as they typically did from the corporate world, they would expect to see the same sort of quick and decisive indicators of success or failure they knew from their day jobs—some sort of philanthropic ROI. As if they needed reminding, they could always count on that kind of precision from the investment houses handling the foundation’s portfolio.

But discussion of the foundation’s giving with program staff—especially following hard on the heels of the familiar and deeply satisfying crispness of the investors’ reports—utterly lacked that clarity. Too often, it seemed, the board was being asked to take on faith that their grants were accomplishing what was promised. Directors were working hard to increase the foundation’s assets in a precise and well-defined way, only to have them distributed in a fuzzyheaded and softhearted way. However tolerable that might have been in the more collegial good old days, the increasing public insistence on philanthropic accountability, as Peter Frumkin has argued, plus more recent demands for heightened board oversight at foundations, only fed directors’ discontent.

Enter strategic philanthropy, old-style. Suddenly foundation staff had a rigorous, demanding, numbers-based framework of its own, enabling it to go toe-to-toe with the investment houses and to silence once and for all the nagging question that came up at every board meeting, “How do we really know that we’re making a difference?” Whatever the discrepancy between real world and PowerPoint presentation, the fact was that staff could now approach the board armed with hard evidence of their own management prowess. And it certainly didn’t hurt that the new metrics frameworks—no matter how “collaboratively” derived—gave staff members a great deal of power over their grantees. Cracking the metrics whip helped satisfy whatever suppressed front-line ambitions program officers may have harbored.

The charter document of this new approach was an article that hundreds of foundation board members in America must have clipped out of their copies of Harvard Business Review in 1999 and slammed down triumphantly on the CEO’s desk. Entitled “Philanthropy’s New Agenda: Creating Value,” it drove home the need to be more business-like in grantmaking, to “focus on a clear and limited set of goals, conducting thorough research, framing a hypothesis for how best to approach a problem, and developing an evidence-based process for learning from results.” This landmark article of the old strategic philanthropy, ironically, was co-authored by Mark Kramer—the selfsame co-author of the SSIR article conceding its insufficiency and proclaiming its replacement by a new strategic philanthropy.

Kramer and his colleagues, I suspect, are going to find it more difficult than they imagine to persuade customers to trade in their old model of strategic philanthropy for the new one, for the fundamental institutional needs the old model satisfied are not likely to be met by the new one. (Actually, the more appropriate automotive analogy for what they should now be considering is a recall.)

An “emergent strategy” no longer pretends to lay out a well-defined path for the future with measureable benchmarks and metric targets. Reality is far too uncertain for that, in this view. It demands flexibility, adaptability, intuition, and imagination—especially among front-line program officers, who are best positioned to sense the swings in momentum, the immediate “vibe,” within the field of operation, and to respond opportunistically. As the authors bluntly note, “the command and control governance structures that exist in many foundations today cannot be used to implement an emergent strategy. In their place one needs to create more flexible accountability structures that allow staff to take the initiative as conditions demand.”

However desirable this may be in theory, in practice this will look to board members and upper management very much like an abandonment of the clear, precisely demarcated lines of march they have come to expect and enjoy. It will seem like a return to the bad old days of board meetings when the sharp clarity of earnings reports was followed by a blizzard of abstract, fuzzy-minded nonsense from program staff that always seemed to boil down to “we make it up as we go along” and “trust us, we know what we’re doing.” Considerable reeducation will be required before directors will accept this as cutting-edge grantmaking rather than a subtle way to undercut their hard-won supervisory authority.

Another need unlikely to be met by emergent strategy is the century-old yearning within institutional philanthropy for the accumulation of solid knowledge. However rigid and constricted the old Newtonian chains of cause and effect, the fact that they faithfully reflected the scientific method paid off in early enterprises like the suppression of hookworm in the South and the Green Revolution. It seemed just a matter of time before similarly big payoffs would be realized by the same approach to the hitherto mysterious workings of human behavior. Hence, we saw massive early investments by Rockefeller, Carnegie and Russell Sage in the social sciences, and later by Ford in the behavioral sciences.

Had that earlier investment in the social sciences met such high expectations, old school strategic philanthropy would have been able to proceed on a firm foundation of predictable, uniform, scientific laws of human action. That there is no such body of laws after a full century of zealous quest might prompt one to question philanthropy’s ability to make the necessary deductions from its own empirical record. But as long as old school strategic philanthropy continues to insist on constructing hypotheses and testing them against the real world, hope remains that a structure of knowledge might begin accreting.

The Rockefeller Foundation’s Zia Khan suggests as much in his comment on “Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World.” While agreeing that the rigidity of the old approach may have been problematic, nonetheless “predicting outcomes and articulating a strategy are not the problem itself.” Without some sort of initial prediction about likely effects of an intervention, he argued, no cumulative learning is possible. “Many opportunities for learning and disseminating improvements are lost because they can’t be referenced to an initial hypothesis.”

As he implies, the new strategic philanthropy is likely to incur that loss. Strategies are no longer scrupulously followed so that, at the end, we can look back and measure results against our initial expectations. In the effort to deal with the full complexity of the world, strategies are flexible, evolutionary, always shifting and adjusting according to the movements of other actors in the field, exploiting opportunities and dodging disasters, trying to capitalize on sudden updrafts in momentum or trying to escape downdrafts.

This may, of course, lead to resounding success in a given instance. But it will not contribute to the construction of a body of principles that would be applicable in other times and places. As Kania, Kramer, and Russell admit, in complex problems “each intervention is unique, successful programs cannot reliably be repeated with the same results, and learning from past efforts does not necessarily contribute to better future results.”

Perhaps the only way to extract “learnings” from an emergent process would be to compile a detailed and honest narrative of the twists and turns, the actions and reactions, which it entails. But because every move along the way must adjust itself to a unique, shifting, complex set of circumstances, it will be impossible to say for sure what each move uniquely contributes, or how the same move might work out under other circumstances.

The student of philanthropy could read such a narrative profitably, of course, usefully comparing and contrasting its course with what she herself faces at work. But her “takeaways” could only have the character of imprecise rules of thumb or proverbs—general guides to wise and prudential action, along the lines of “strike while the iron is hot” or “don’t hog all the credit from your grantees.”

Contemporary philanthropy boasts any number of guides to effective grantmaking with lists of such proverbs, of course. And they are invariably accompanied by cheery illustrative anecdotes that always begin with a clever hunch and arrive within the same shaded half-page sidebar at a decisive, positive outcome.

But truly to understand the new strategic philanthropy, much more is required. We must have access to thoroughgoing accounts of the real-life ups and downs of a philanthropic initiative. Absent that kind of nuanced, richly textured account of the concrete experience of the venture—not just sterile data, but a fly-on-the-wall view of the real-time planning and execution, with all its preposterous hopes, false starts, and dead ends, as well as its no doubt triumphal conclusion—the decontextualized proverbs and cheery anecdotes can only seem abstract, inert, or forehead-slappingly obvious.

Understanding emergent strategy, in other words, demands an honest account of emergence—that is, the full, unexpurgated story of what follows the messy, unpleasant, and repeated collisions of strategy with reality, when its carefully planned maneuvers go careening off into the woods. But that is precisely the sort of raw and unedited information that foundations are exceedingly unlikely to provide. There are very few pesky, inquisitive flies on the sumptuous mahogany walls of American foundations.

It is striking, for instance, that even after forty years, Waldemar Nielsen’s The Big Foundations remains the best overall view of the inner workings of foundations, warts and all, a volume that no doubt stands as a warning to foundation CEOs everywhere about the dangers of providing too much access to a writer.

These kinds of detailed and unvarnished accounts of major events are available, of course, throughout the world of politics and business. But that’s only because those sectors, unlike philanthropy, swarm with aggressive competitors, probing journalists, and voracious readers, all determined for their own reliably self-interested reasons to pierce the sanitized, official line in quest of the real story. Absent that demand for complete information, coupled with the aversion of foundations to its supply, knowledge building in emergent strategy will be problematic.

Whatever the deficiencies of “Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World,” however, this much must be said for it: As a prescription for success in grantmaking at the upper levels of public policy, it is right on target. Though shrouded in jargon and verging at times on mysticism, it is one of the most accurate descriptions I’ve read in a while about what foundations must do to pursue significant goals successfully over the long haul.

That remains true even though, as Phil Buchanan of the Center for Effective Philanthropy points out in his reaction to the article, the argument may not be entirely original. He notes correctly that Patti Patrizi has been making their case for years. Phil himself, along with Cindy Gibson, Bill Dietel, Bill Somerville, Michael Edwards, Albert Ruesga, Rick Cohen, and others have also “been cautioning against the top-down, corporate, ‘unique value’ approach” once espoused by the authors. One also cannot overlook the contributions of Henry Mintzberg and Margaret Wheatley to an “emergent” approach to organizational management more broadly.

Furthermore, Harvard’s Christine Letts points out that some foundations have been practicing emergent strategy for a while, though they may not have called it that. Foremost among the “good past examples of foundation work that does match the challenge that the authors raise” is “the success of the conservative foundations.”

The fact that I worked for a while at one of those foundations on causes ranging from welfare reform to school choice to civic renewal leads me to observe that Kania, Kramer, and Russell could well have been peering over our shoulders and taking notes. That they were not so doing and yet provided such an uncannily accurate account of our process attests to their insight, while reminding us that it rests on evidence that will be very hard to come by.

But even within conservative foundations, and even during times when the policy successes are abundant and apparent, I’ve seen how difficult it is to sustain the sort of flexibility and responsiveness demanded by emergent strategy. The impulse for command and control within even the most proficient organization inclines leadership to be suspicious of and impatient with decentralized, staff-driven initiatives justified by lengthy, intricate, confusing narratives featuring many moving parts. The urge to control pushes relentlessly for more explicit and mathematically precise frameworks of accountability so that busy board members can grasp at a glance, once every quarter, exactly what’s being accomplished with how much money.

The old-style strategic philanthropy previously championed by Kramer and his colleagues only reflects and reinforces that impulse for control, of course, making the prospects for emergent strategy all the more difficult.

One aspect of conservative philanthropy our authors missed, though, is the leeway it affords not only its program officers, but its grantees as well.

We never assumed that front-line nonprofits dealt only with non-complex problems, and therefore should be compelled to reduce their work to Newtonian chains of cause and effect. We understood full well that, especially in the realm of public policy, all levels of work, from the foundation CEO down to the smallest grantee, must be pursued with the assumption of maximum latitude and flexibility.

The authors’ emergent strategy, by contrast, seems to promise no relief for the imaginary nonprofit CEO introduced at the beginning of this essay, now no doubt several glasses of Chardonnay into his evening. Since he is concerned only with simple or complicated, but not complex, problems, he will continue to labor under the strictures imposed by the old strategic philanthropy. As Paul Brest points out, even though there may be a “complex overarching strategy,” the emergent approach as described here still means that “as a matter of operational necessity, each of these organizations must have a simple and somewhat rigid strategy.” That is very much at odds with conservative philanthropy’s experience, and with Darren Walker’s understanding that his “simple” work at Abyssinian could have benefited immensely from the flexibility afforded by the new strategic philanthropy.

In the authors’ view, then, emergent strategy is not recommended for most nonprofits. In my view, it is not likely to be adopted by most foundations. But it does have the not insignificant virtue of being true. I only wish, when some of us were arguing fifteen years ago that Kramer and Porter’s “Philanthropy’s New Agenda: Creating Value” was a horrible, terrible, very bad idea, that we could have cited Kania, Kramer, and Russell’s “Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World.”


 

William Schambra is director of the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.