The Power of “We Don’t Know”

Imagine standing before your Board of Directors and putting forward a bold, ambitious new strategy for your organization. All analyses of assets, capacity, and needs are complete. Staff have provided their input and expertise. As you see it, now is the time to act.

There’s just one problem. The new strategy recognizes the complexity of the issues your organization is trying to address – tackling poverty, improving safety, reducing homelessness, or improving health. The goals are clear, but the theory of change is a little fuzzy.

It takes courage to admit – especially to a Board – that embracing complexity in our strategies means that “we don’t know.” We don’t know the outcomes that we’ll achieve in the next 2, 3, or 10 years. We don’t know the most effective strategies that will get us to our goals. We don’t know the best partners or partnership strategies that will end up producing the most meaningful results. Now, we should have a hunch – hopefully one that is substantiated with strong analysis and insight. Yet the strategy can’t be set in stone.

When the way change is expected to happen is not really clear, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that such oversight constitutes poor strategic planning. But this is not always the case.

“We don’t know” can mean that we will need to live into this strategy a bit before we can identify what outcomes are realistic and feasible.

“We don’t know” can also mean that our organization alone can’t chart its course. This is a frightening thought! Imagine a strategy that takes into account the perspectives of partners and fellow collaborators.

While funders expect nonprofits to do this sort of thing all the time, many foundations are in a privileged position to chart their course independently without worrying about attracting others to their cause. “The field flows where the funding goes…” so we’ve seen and heard. However, for foundation leaders brave enough to recognize the complexity of their work, engaging in strategic learning is absolutely essential.

For example, The California Endowment has engaged in strategic learning to better understand how some of the key assumptions underlying its strategy have been playing out over the first 3 years.

One example of the foundation’s commitment to learning is its commissioning of a “strategic review” that assessed critical components of its complex, multifaceted Building Healthy Communities strategy. FSG worked with The Endowment’s leaders and staff to design and implement the review. We examined how it is that their local and statewide work is creating “synergy” – an assumption in their theory of change that was a bit fuzzy to many of the experts in the field they consulted during the planning phase.

When Building Healthy Communities started, leaders believed that local and state program staff and grantees ought to be working together intentionally to achieve results that would be  “more than the sum of their parts.” Yet, what this state-local synergy would look like, what types of supports would be needed, and implications for other aspects of the foundation couldn’t be fully appreciated until the work was underway.

Others have written about strategic learning’s essential role as philanthropy seeks to be more intentional and deliberate about solving complex social problems. In an insightful Foundation Review article about strategic learning, Patti Patrizi, Julia Coffman, and their colleagues at the Evaluation Roundtable write, “Although some dynamics of change in a system might be ‘knowable’ before strategy launch, much of what needs to be learned about these dynamics depends upon actual experience.”

Now, three years in and one strategic review later, The Endowment knows more about of the type, quality, and implications of its local and statewide connectedness. What was a “fuzzy” element of The Endowment’s theory of change has become much clearer!

There are other ways, besides strategic reviews, to engage in strategic learning so that what is unknown at the start of a strategy becomes better understood.

  • One is reflective dialogue. My colleague, Hallie Preskill, published an excellent, short blog post on organizational learning that every nonprofit and foundation leader should read.
  • Second is beneficiary feedback. Staying in touch with your grantees or those who are receiving or participating in services can ensure that you understand how your strategy is being perceived by the people most impacted by your work. While this can happen within a more formal relationship – for example, between a program officer and grantee or a staff person and community member – it is often helpful to have a third party perspective, as well. The Center for Effective Philanthropy has some great “listening” tools that provide beneficiary feedback for foundations and nonprofits.

What is needed to accelerate this type of learning within your organization and the field at large? What would help you make this happen?

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