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.”
“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…