We’re pleased to provide a link today to a piece that NPQ board member Cindy Gibson just published on the blog of the Center for Effective Philanthropy: What Strategy Is…and Isn’t—Hint: It’s Not Rocket Science. When foundation execs talk about strategy, do they really know what they’re talking about—not just in terms of designing strategies that make sense, but even being able to distinguish “strategies” from goals or tactics or programs? Gibson’s article is well worth reading in its entirety, but we offer nuggets in Gibson’s own words here to whet your appetite:

  • the most commonly cited reason for funders to eschew more intentional and rigorous strategy development is that there’s little incentive for them do to so, given that philanthropic institutions tend to operate with few formal accountability structures
  • strategy isn’t really that complicated. While it does require the ability to think logically and articulate a rationale as to why a particular path is chosen over another, it isn’t rocket science.  Nor should it take forever and serve as a proxy for actually doing something.
  • Developing an effective strategy starts with an open mind and a willingness to step back and explore all options…[but some] philanthropic institutions simply don’t give program officers the space and freedom to conduct serious and thoughtful analyses of the issues or domains in which they’re working. 
  • Goals are related to strategy, but they’re not the strategy. ‘What would success look like’ isn’t a throwaway question, …, but it’s surprising how many funders still overlook the importance of this question as a critical starting point for creating effective strategies. 
  • Strategy isn’t a box; it’s a membrane. People tend to bristle at the notion of indicators or metrics because they can feel limiting or as if they’re “boxing us in” and, indeed, in some ways, they are because they’re a prompt for “concretizing the vision” in ways that invite more accountability for what’s supported and what isn’t. 
  • Strategy includes an assessment of what other investors are doing.  Like many of us, funders can easily become wrapped up in their own sense of importance and/or buried in their own cultures to the extent that they forget to look around and see what others are doing. 

Do take a look at this piece and use it as a frame for looking at the foundations you deal with—or the foundations you’re employed by. Is there a strategy there that makes sense, that provides a framework for understanding what the foundation is trying to achieve and how? Gibson’s framework for foundation strategy development should remind foundation leaders and staff that strategy doesn’t require a Ph.D. in astrophysics, but an open, creative, inquiring mindset, a thoughtful intellectual process to, in Gibson’s words, “be even more intentional about clarifying what philanthropic investments they’re making and why and with what anticipated result.”