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November 12, 2007


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Bruce Trachtenberg

I like Wikipedia's much simpler (and more to the point) definition of strategy: "A long term plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal..." It might be lacking "hypothesized causal connections," but it does suggest some thought about how you're going to get where you want to go.

Albert Ruesga

The Wikipedia definition maps perfectly to the CEP's definition, seems to me. "Plan" corresponds to "framework," and the causal connection is implied: you don't embark on some plan of action unless you believe there are causal connections between those actions and your desired ends. The "long-term" proviso reflects the fact that you don't need a strategy for doing something that's straightforward, like brushing your teeth.

A Cottingham

I'd be curious to know how being strategic or not correlates to the age of the foundation and the experience (in philanthropy) of the staff leader. New foundations rarely seem to be strategic, which may be fine, as a board and staff cast about for the best ways to use the foundation's resources -- provided they get serious at some point (in the first decade?) and make some hard choices and focus. Also, as Joel Orosz describes in his new book, some foundations seem not to believe or know that there are actually a set of proven practices for smart philanthropy. I'd hypothesize that many of the nonstrategic foundations are led by such people.

Can anyone resist imagining what the uproar would be among foundations if research showed that many grantees were not operating strategically?

Russ Burke

Fundamentally disturbing.

There's no correcting mechanism here... nothing that "nudges" foundations to thinking and acting more strategically.

My cynical side say want to scream that is why we received so many "refusals to fund" when the proposal was precisely positioned and presented to engage their stated mission.

It seems somehow disingenuous that foundations would insist on proposal measures and reporting that quantifies effectiveness when they likely had no true measure for their own effectiveness.

OK, I'm done whining. Structural solutions, anyone?


Maybe you have to go back to the founder's era and ask, "Why do you want a permanent, staffed foundation? Why not get active in your lifetime, and work with nonprofit leaders to move the needle on the causes you care about? Develop successor leadership within those organizations. Create alliances. Do what you can while alive. No permanent staff administering a pile of money will ever have your vision, energy, and commitment."


One of two things can happen. Strategy can become the next flavor of the month, fueled by our desire to be the first foundation on the block to have one and by consultants on the take. Or we'll learn to avoid the subject in embarrassed silence, not quite certain that we can rise to the standard.

Sharon Schneider

"I’m not yet convinced that business wonks armed with strategies and metrics will consistently outperform grantmakers who work opportunistically, without a rigid plan, constantly adjusting their tactics to a landscape that presents new opportunities and challenges."

I think you're implying that strategy equals "a rigid plan." If people think strategy means having a rigid plan, no wonder they don't do it.

Strategy is having a framework that guides you to make the right decisions, the right adjustments, as new obstacles and opportunities arise. Strategy is more like sailing a ship, not launching a rocket (which I would call a "rigid plan").

I think it's being overly charitable to suggest that most grantmakers who seem to be funding something different every year are being wise and opportunistic. Mostly I think they just don't know whether anything they're funding is working, or their goals or so broadly stated "improving the lives of children" that, as you say, almost anything "works." It's the few who have a well-conceived strategy that are prepared to adjust and react wisely in order to accomplish a well-articulated goal.

That said, the CEP paper's point holds: few grantmakers employ strategy in their giving.


Some of the most wasteful foundation spending is done in the name of their "strategy." The one that occurs to me first is the Annie E. Casey Foundation, funding huge regional collaborations with multi-million dollar grants until some of the stakeholders change (like through elections, the regularity of which never seem to make it into their "strategy") and then they simply drop it, leaving the field weaker than it was before and relationships between local nonprofits sometimes irreparable damaged.

But you can bet they spent a lot of time, money, staffing, consultants, research, etc, on their "strategy."

Albert Ruesga

Thanks for your comment, Sharon. I sometimes sacrifice accuracy for the sake of rhetorical impact. I didn't mean to imply--although I obviously did--that adjusting to changing circumstances can't be an element of strategy. Any good strategist has to be flexible. But I would argue that in many cases, the more opportunistic we become, the more frequently we change course to take advantage of new opportunities, the less our actions appear to fit inside a single "framework" that guides decision-making. Either that or the framework becomes so broad, so general as to be silly (e.g., "Make good choices at each juncture").

You use the metaphor of sailing a ship. I think it's apt. When I sail, I don't typically devise a strategy for getting from point A to point B. I apply my skills as a sailor to changing circumstances--untoward or shifting winds, heavy boat traffic, etc.

I didn't assert that "most grantmakers who seem to be funding something different every year are being wise and opportunistic." Neither do I believe it. I do believe, however, that the case for well articulated strategies has been overstated. I should also mention that I'm persoanlly a great believer in the importance of working in accordance with some well reasoned, well articulated strategy even as I acknowledge that a lot of good grantmaking has happened outside of any strategic framework.

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