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Why Isn’t Strategic Philanthropy Solving More Problems?

Strategic philanthropy has not proven to be the catalyst for change projected by many (including us!). But why? Perhaps as currently conceived, strategic philanthropy falls short of offering the mental models, insight support, and guidelines needed to engage effectively on complex social and environmental problems. We believe more can be done to bring strategic philanthropy to its full potential.

We have seen positive trends – some foundations, governments, and businesses have begun to move away from a shotgun approach to funding, finding ways to assess and partner with the most effective grantees. And yet many still haven’t developed an appreciation for how complex social change actually happens. For those of you who are fans of Henry Mintzberg, you are familiar with his perspective that rarely do intended, planned strategies lead to perfectly realized strategies. That is because things change and strategic organizations adapt to accommodate those changes. So where have we gotten off track? Have tools like logic models and result frameworks hindered rather than empowered strategic philanthropy?

Logic models have helped many boards and staff better articulate their hypotheses for how change will happen as a result of their investments. Yet rarely are these hypotheses tested.  Instead they are blindly trusted, and strategies continue on autopilot while the community and context change around them. Strategic philanthropy is at its best when it 1) accounts for other actors when creating the strategy and 2) accounts for the inevitable need to adapt. This requires a shift from a tightly controlled strategy to a more flexible approach where the goal is clearly articulated, but the means by which the strategy is deployed remains loose and can be easily adapted as conditions change. Logic models, while directionally correct, may have become handcuffs rather than agents of change.

We’re currently researching organizations that are doing strategic philanthropy well – where they have clearly articulated goals, strategies that account for other players in the ecosystem, and sensing mechanisms and organizational cultures that allow for ongoing assessment of what’s changing and the ability (and mandate) to make quick course corrections.

We’re interested in learning more about what is working for others. What framework alternatives are out there to the classic logic model? Have you been able to successfully shift your board from a “command and control” model to one that is more open to a “clear goal, emerging strategy” approach?  How did you do it? How are you engaging with your community to better understand what is changing and applying your insights to your strategic approach? Share what works for your organization, and why. 

Patty Russell

Former Managing Director, FSG