The Strategic Philanthropy Crowd: Qualified Apologies-R-Us

Print Share on LinkedIn More


Yesterday, the Chronicle of Philanthropy ran yet another apology from a recovering strategic philanthropist. Maybe it’s just too soon for us after taking on Ken Berger’s letter of deep regret, but these apologies from former strategic philanthropy adherents are getting a little tiresome, and since none of them are particularly satisfying anyway, maybe we could respectfully ask you to stop?

One of the first and most glib came from the consultants at FSG, who declared,

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.

Oh, thanks—we might have totally missed that. In fact, NPQ, along with Bill Schambra and a number of others, have been trying to demonstrate the nakedness of this autocratic and insistent emperor for way more than a decade, with its proponents meanwhile acting as if we were regressive spoilsports.

Schambra notes in his response to the FSG piece that Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation had his own firsthand account of the damage caused to hardworking nonprofits by so-called strategic philanthropy. When he was at the Abyssinian Development Corporation in Harlem, Walker 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.”

Walker adds, “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.”

So maybe a good apology might be worded thus:

“Oh dear, where was my head? I wasted time and money and caused a lot of angst among nonprofits who had to train themselves not to spit nails when most of our grant meetings ended up being about how their work could fit into our foundation’s oversimplified but highly ambitious strategic outcomes.”

Or one might say,

“Please forgive me for my arrogance and nonsensical belief that wicked problems could be tamed by linear logic emerging from the brains of people who actually had little to no first-hand experience in the human, political and social realities of the work.”

Or even,

“I sincerely apologize for my complete lack of respect for self-determination and democratic principles of authentic engagement.”

Thankfully, the self-love fest has died down a bit, and the proponents of the strategic philanthropy ideology are in the process of, one by one, walking their revelations back out of public view. But the way that they are doing it does not exactly convince us all that they wouldn’t once again declare a philanthropic plutocracy if given half a chance. Yesterday’s half-stepped letter from Hal Harvey published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy is a great example.

Harvey, who must have missed the context of philanthropic to nonprofit/community power imbalances before he co-authored Money Well Spent with Paul Brest, says the problem was not exactly in the concept of top-down strategy making with the top being the money holders—it’s just that some people took it to extremes.

Ah, that new “absolute power corrupts absolutely” principle.

To Harvey’s credit, he did cite some pretty accurate examples of the results, which were, well, disappointing on so many levels. In the end, though, he copped only to having “good intentions, badly applied” (by other people). That is completely insufficient as an apology for losing faith, from a position of power, in the democratic principles that this sector should stand for above all else. He writes that grantmakers should not confuse strategic grantmaking “with either program omniscience or suffocating process (or) you will kill what you are trying to create.”

Once again, the grantmaker as creator.

Maybe each of these apologies is designed to do exactly what Schambra observed two years ago:

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.

Fool me once, shame on you…

  • Third Sector Radio USA

    Thank you Ruth for cutting directly through the B.S. (do not pass Go, do not collect $200)! You’re third suggested apology is the one we should be hearing, but the milquetoast one’s we are getting will allow these people to remain on the lecture circuit longer.

    Admittedly late to the game, I too pointed out the problems with “strategic philanthropy” (a modern nomenclature for the “scientific” philanthropic of yore) on Third Sector Radio USA. The dogmatism–and failings–of strategic philanthropy in complex adaptive systems led me to the study of complexity leadership. I hope soon to have evidence of how the antithesis of strategic philanthropy, that is, democratic, continuous-learning philanthropy engaged by those who people authentically participating in resolving wicked problems, DOES achieve positive outcomes. This kind of philanthropy is why we need a strong middle class–to engage more people in the necessary work of community.

    Terry Fernsler

  • SIRC

    NPQ’s criticism of philanthropy’s top-down reforms would carry more weight if it actually covered “authentic engagement” in any real sense. A quick Google search of your site on “authentic engagement” reveals remarkably little other than one piece with ten tips and no discernible reporting on its actual track record.

    Given your concerns about the topic, I would expect more than that.

    • Hal Harvey

      I welcome this conversation, but think it could be better pursued with less snarkiness and more thought. One foundation CEO summarized strategic philanthropy as, simply, “know what you are doing, know how you are doing it, know whether you are succeeding.” I find that pretty hard to argue with: It is required for everything from weeding a garden to sending a rocket to space or, indeed, non-profit work. One of the opponents to strategic philanthropy, above, calls for “continuous learning.” You can’t do that unless you know what you are doing, how, and whether it is working. Getting wrapped around the axle of logic models and endless process is an obvious potential failure mode, but that does not reduce the necessity of strategy.

      My article for the Chronicle argues, strongly, that the _how_ of strategy really matters. For example, I did argue that setting strategy need to rely heavily on the wisdom of people in the field, synthesizing the best work, offering general support to those with great track records, and so forth. This is nothing new to me: It has been my formal practice in every foundation job I have held. Pray tell how a bottom-up approach can succeed without exactly this exercise?

      When we make choices about writing checks, we are using some sort of logic–explicit or implicit. So why not be explicit about it–and thereby have a way of testing whether we got it right? That does not imply top-down, commandeering philanthropy.

      BTW, for the record, I did not write and would have not approved the title of my article. My title was “Sins committed in the name of strategic philanthropy.” That better reflects my purpose here.


      • Third Sector Radio USA

        Strategic philanthropy is–and has been–a hierarchical offshoot of linear strategy. Realizing the sins committed in the name of strategic philanthropy indicates strategic thinking is finally occurring. Strategic thinking itself is not a one-time activity, but a continuous evaluation of outcomes, both intended and unexpected. It begins before implementation of a program or project, and helps adapt said program or project to improve conditions while in process. There is (and was) plenty of evidence that “strategic” (perhaps more aptly described as power) philanthropy produces negative effects, often (at least in the long term) more consequential than the positive effects, That evidence has been available even before the undertaking of any strategic philanthropy efforts, but elites are too often willing to ignore it.

        Linear, “rational” strategies, especially those that are not flexible enough to allow adaptation, are, as one respondent noted, cause to wonder whether nonprofit organizations are actually working on the wicked problems, the ones that “will always be with us.” (Perhaps in spite of many decades in the nonprofit sector [although I like to think it is because of it], I am more optimistic about human ingenuity than to think wicked problems cannot be resolved. These resolutions will likely not occur in my lifetime [but I also used to think the U.S. would not have an African-American president in my lifetime, and I am still alive], but that does not mean I will stop working to achieve them.) Wicked problems require many hands, hearts, and heads. Too often people think they have the one best strategy to resolve them, and get lost in the strategy rather than elicit the vision and mission. Wicked problems are complex problems, and resolving complex problems will happen by remembering the larger vision and purpose and making meaning of them with complex adaptive networks that embrace ambiguity, the value of all participants, and finding many possible solutions at the margins, not reliance on just a few powerful people trying to force linear, “rational” structures that worked in one instance onto new circumstances that have little resemblance to the first.

        Working with many hands, hearts, and heads requires flexibility, and the willingness to learn from others, especially those in the weeds of the problems. Continuous learning can occur when the mission and vision are kept in mind to lead strategic thinking, not when we get lost in the more simplistic, reductionist use of strategy.

  • Combined with continuing efforts to redress the damage caused by the “war on overhead” (and the idea that you can evaluate a non-profit organization based on annual reporting data and assign them a grade) the pronouncement that applying rigid paradigms to social change (which is by definition a fluid process) doesn’t work is all very hopeful! However, someone somewhere with big money and big power will come up with a new way to ignore the truth of the matter, which is that the biggest single barrier to improved NPO performance is funders that don’t want to fund what works best, and instead put their own needs ahead of the outcomes.

  • Gayle

    What drove me to apoplexy wasn’t the discipline of logic models (I love them — and happen to think it is important to analyze what the assumptions are we carry around in our brains on how change happens. Favorite piece is Ian David Moss’s In defense of logic models).

    What drove me crazy was the whole of idea of “rationalizing” the marketplace of philanthropy with the idea of picking winners and losers among organizations based on some evaluation protocol that did not reflect the dynamic, complex and interdependent nature of the systems in which NGOs work, not to mention the influences of place and leaders on influencing any outcomes which is never assessed in the logic model or evaluation.

    The market rationalization harkened back to the bad old days of the United Way partnership funding model. In my own community in those days, excluded from eligibility for partner funding were many of the innovators — the CDCs pioneering community development and housing, environmental justice organizations (heck, all environmental organizations), all advocacy and public policy, all of the arts, all health, and more. In my many years in this sector, some of the most important advancements have come from folks observing and responding to conditions that were not on the radar of the big funders, or bucked the approved program logic model (think Housing First).

    Ditto the above to the infatuation with social impact bonds.

  • Paul Brest

    As Hal Harvey’s co-conspirator in strategic philanthropy, I’ve defined the practice in these simple terms: (1) donors articulate and seek to achieve clearly defined goals; (2) donors and their grantees explore and then pursue evidence-based strategies for achieving those goals; and (3) both parties monitor progress toward outcomes and assess success in achieving them in order to make appropriate course corrections.

    One can argue about the extent to which these tenets apply to “emergent” issues. But a glance at the pages of NPQ, which is a good mirror of the sector, indicates that the vast, vast majority of the sector’s work, challenging though it may, doesn’t fit this category.

    As Hal indicates, the tools of strategic philanthropy can be misused and abused. (So too can the tools of any valuable practice, from carpentry to surgery.) But the costs of ignoring what amount to basic tenets of rational decision making are even greater, and it is counterproductive to make the idea of strategic philanthropy the target for everything nonprofit leaders don’t like about donors’ behavior.

    This would truly be a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Ruth’s selective references to Hal’s article ignores the fundamental value that he, as well as other outcome-oriented nonprofit leaders attribute to the practice.

    • Mathieu Despard

      Well put. If strategic philanthropy is flawed because it is misaligned with nonprofits’ work on wicked problems, where is the evidence that nonprofits are in fact working on wicked problems? Frankly, many if not most nonprofits are poorly positioned – in terms of financial capital and political influence – to do much about wicked problems.

      However flawed strategic philanthropy 1.0 was, basic ideas and values of a nonprofit articulating intended impact and doing something – really anything (including simply asking participants if they are any better off, which does not require an expensive evaluation) – to assess effectiveness and learn from their efforts should be upheld.

      There’s a lot more room for nonprofits to grow in terms of data mining, evaluation, and organizational learning. What foundations could and should do is increase long-term, unrestricted funding to allow nonprofits to build capacity in this respect.

  • Kebo Drew

    As one of our many community partners once said, “the work is the work” and it will continue to be the work, because it is effective and because it sparks collective action and change. Whether foundations can see that as they switch strategies that require grantees to: ring a bell every two minutes when the wind comes from the east and the sun is shining in the morning but there are afternoon showers; that is another question entirely.

  • Tricia Baker

    Brilliant as usual, Ruth!

  • Devon Kearney

    Even in retreat, Harvey and other strategic philanthropy advocates frame their problems in practical terms. But the problems seem more fundamental: in this discussion, strategic philanthropists often start from a questionable conception of what social justice is, and how it is
    achieved the process is both more political and more accidental than the strategic philanthropy paradigm takes into account. By looking at these underlying assumptions, I think we can see where strategic philanthropy goes awry, and address some of the distortions it has forced on the social justice nonprofit sector.

  • We always seem to be swinging on a pendulum side to side with very little forward motion. Having worked at “strategic” philanthropies for many years, I can say with assurance that strategy, like anything, can be overdone, but that doesn’t make it something to apologize for. Having an articulable hypothesis of how one can get to the social outcomes one is working towards is essential for learning and making funding decisions. Working in a relatively undeveloped sector, many of my potential grantees’ ideas weren’t just not evidence-based, but evidence-opposed – people would propose things over and over that had definitively been shown NOT to work. Even ideas where there was a plausible pathway from inputs->activities->outcome often missed the point about having an impact at a meaningful scale on the people we wanted to help. Proposals like these couldn’t pass the counterfactual test of being more useful than piling the money up, soaking it with kerosene, and lighting it on fire, which at least makes a dramatic statement. So we had to say “no” a lot – and being able to talk about strategy helped would be-grantees understand why, eventually. However, the alternative isn’t to demand that grantees produce specified “deliverables” whose utility they didn’t understand or believe in, but rather to do the field building, capacity building, and nurture long-term relationships so that organizations would get stronger and be able to play their appropriate role in developing the collective strategy. The apology that is due, if there is one, is for anyone to imagine that they can develop strategy in a vacuum and order up its implementation the way that manufacturers order parts (which is itself a stereotype these days) for assembly back at foundation HQ.

  • So of course charities should know what they are trying to do, why they are trying to do it, and how well it is working…and yes, of course, a Theory of Change or other strategic process/product is very useful for helping guide fiduciary, strategic, and generative discussions along those lines…but for those who are not understanding the “snarky” reaction to “strategic philanthropy” bear in mind that this is mostly about funders and arbitrary behaviour/demands placed on charities by people and organizations in positions of power who are not taking the time to understand the sector and/or causes concerned, and are seeking oversimplified measurements to satisfy their own needs. This is the most efficient way to generate data that shows we are solving problems without actually engaging in authentic social change, because they only problem being solved is the need for the funder to generate a tidy infographic.

  • JKoz

    Dealing with the annual annoyance of foundations shifting their priorities after absorbing one consultant’s model of strategic philanthropy can cause a few grey hairs, the real problem for many nonprofits is the bat sh#t insane process of government contracting. Foundations look insightful and thoughtful compared to what pours forth out of bureaucracies (double down if it’s the Department of Education). Talk about the “absolute power corrupts absolutely” principle

  • I proudly teach and sometimes preach to my clients that funders should know what they want to accomplish with their grant making work BEFORE they do it. Of necessity, this implies having a plan. They should measure their results and take the long view of social change with as many collaborators and ground-level participants as possible as they build their models for change and make multi-year commitments. I think its still called strategic philanthropy. I don’t hear much about a more impactful approach…most of the time the alternative to having a strategy is NOT having one which is a condition of at least equal harm, indentureship and waste. However, it is an approach applauded by elite social engineers who seek money without accountability. Go for it, but as for me, I will always advise my clients to spend their money with a purpose in mind.