P O S T E D B Y A L B E R T
1. The Center for Effective Philanthropy recently published Beyond the Rhetoric: Foundation Strategy. It should have made front page news, but it barely made a splash, even inside the world of foundations. Here’s its primary finding:
We learned that even though most [foundation staff] interviewed believe that having and using a strategy increases a foundation’s ability to create impact, many do not use strategy in their own work. We asked respondents to describe the frameworks they use to guide their decisions. While some decisionmaking frameworks met our basic definition of strategy, a majority did not.
If I may be permitted to do a little translating: The majority of foundations do their grantmaking completely by the seat of their pants. There’s no framework; no well articulated strategy for achieving desired ends. The fate of some of our most vulnerable communities rests in the hands of grantmakers who do their work by feeling their way in the dark, as many of us do.
This sounds like a bad thing. Is it?
2. Keep in mind that for many people inside the foundation world, charity represents a kind of weak, emotional response to a social problem, while philanthropy, because it is strategic, attempts to get to the root of a problem and solve it once and for all. Strategy is also what keeps our grantmaking from becoming a random walk through many bogus ideas about the mechanics of social change.
We use the word “strategy” frequently in our work. But what is it really?
3. Here’s the definition of “strategy” used by the Center for Effective Philanthropy:
A framework for decision-making that is 1) focused on the external context in which the foundation works and 2) includes a hypothesized causal connection between use of foundation resources and goal achievement.
What’s most striking about this definition is that it’s absurdly weak: Which foundation’s grantmaking doesn’t focus on the external context in which it does its work? Which foundation CEO, when challenged, cannot articulate a connection between what his foundation funds and what his foundation sets out to accomplish?
Consider this example: The Levittown Community Foundation aims to end gang violence in Levittown’s low-income neighborhoods. Its strategy is to fund gang summits to achieve this end. Foundation board and staff members believe that bringing members of different gangs together can help these gangs resolve their differences.
This has all the earmarks of a strategy, according to the Center for Effective Philanthropy definition: a framework for decision-making focused on the external context (Levittown’s low-income neighborhoods), positing a causal connection between what the foundation funds (gang summits) and its goals (the ending of gang violence).
And yet this strategy has almost no chance of succeeding. It doesn’t address the issues that bring members of youth gangs into conflict; it does nothing to prevent young people from being drawn into gangs in the first place; it doesn’t incorporate what others have learned from failed attempts to sponsor gang summits; etcetera.
The Center for Effective Philanthropy definition is so broad that almost any kind of nonsense can count as a strategy. And therein lies its strength: Despite the fact that the definition is broad, it’s still the case that a majority of foundations fail to use any kind of strategy at all—good or bad—in their grantmaking.
The conclusion, lurking just behind the study’s primary finding, is that the foundation field is in disarray, having little effect, at best, and squandering enormous sums of money, at worst.
Is this a fair assessment?
4. It might not be. We have yet to determine empirically the correlation between explicit, well articulated foundation strategies and the production of social goods. Foundations armed with detailed strategies and metrics might not consistently outperform grantmakers who work opportunistically without a rigid plan, who constantly adjust their tactics to a landscape that presents new opportunities and challenges. Napoleon, for example, never developed a theory of change before going into battle. There was no grand plan that connected the fall of Paris, say, to his winning of France.
Keep in mind also that a strategy only makes sense when the path to your goal isn’t direct, when there’s some significant uncertainty about whether your efforts will achieve your ends. You don’t need a strategy for driving to the grocery store, but you might need a strategy for getting your school-aged child out of bed in the morning. Likewise, a grantmaker who sets out simply to “improve the lives of children in our region” doesn’t need anything as complicated as what the word strategy would suggest. Just about any kindly act toward a child would achieve his desired end.
I suspect that many of the foundations studied by the Center for Effective Philanthropy had goals that were equally open-ended. This fact, if it is a fact, would tend to inflate the numbers of the “unstrategic,” making the study’s conclusions appear much more dramatic than they are. Why so many grantmakers would have such fuzzy goals must remain the subject of another post ...