Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.
— Philip K. Dick
Balm For The Soul ... If For Nothing Else
[Editor’s note: To read part 1 in this series of posts on grantmaking strategy, please click here.]
So somehow—using a combination of consultants, perhaps, and Ouija boards—we’ve answered the UR-Question and settled on a set of goals. We’re now ready for strategic planning, part 2.
Before going on, I need to lay some cards on the table. For a long time I’ve viewed most strategic planning work as a kind of hucksterism that has relied on the placebo effect far more than on any kind of intellectual rigor. We attend many meetings, we convene many people, we contemplate a long series of pie charts, and at the end of this process we produce a document that garners some confidence for us and a nice check for our consultants. Our newly minted strategic plan has an air of plausibility and so we plow ahead, putting aside our qualms about the hair-raising leaps in logic that purchased our assent.
Studies produced by very intelligent people chide grantmakers for a lack of strategy in their work, begging many questions about what constitutes a “strategy.” In one such study, a strategy was defined as “[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.” The authors of this study went on to claim that a majority of the grantmaking frameworks they examined did not meet this definition. This was to me an extraordinary claim, for I’ve never once in twenty-five years of nonprofit work met a grantmaker whose grantmaking “framework” was not strategic in the sense just described. The definition sets a very low bar. The authors of the study offered this by way of explanation:
What constituted a strategy under our definition? Here is an example that would meet our definition from a foundation that aims to improve children’s education. Its decision making is guided by a framework that is external to the foundation: “Provide grants to nonprofits that work with teachers to improve the quality of lessons.” In addition, the foundation staff could articulate a hypothesized causal connection between foundation resources and goal achievement: “Our grantmaking supporting improved teacher training stems from our analysis that under-qualified teachers are the biggest reason why children’s educational achievement isn’t improving fast enough.”
This stands in contrast to a decision-making framework for the same goal that would not meet our definition because it looks only inward at an internal process for providing grants: “Our grantmaking process starts with a letter of intent that is reviewed by a staff member and then a full application that is reviewed by two different staff committees.”
Are we to believe that none of the grantmakers in this second example, that nobody in this foundation’s leadership or on its staff, could, if properly engaged, give some account—any account—of how their grants might lead to improving children’s education? This sounds to me more like a failure of communication than a real lack of strategy, at least as it’s defined by the authors. It appears to me these folks simply didn’t understand the question. Doesn’t the very fact that these grantmakers make grants to educators rather than to figure skaters suggest that they might not be the blithering idiots we take them to be?
Definitional issues loom large in the strategy debate. If we narrow the definition of a strategy—perhaps by requiring that we articulate an elaborate theory of change to support our intervention—do we then heap scorn on grantmakers like Bill Somerville? He argues, essentially, that funders should simply get out of their offices, identify who’s doing consistently good work in the community, and then give them some money. Is Mr. Somerville’s m.o. unacceptably unstrategic?
Ironically, Bill Somerville’s approach—cavalier as it sounds—is in fact supported by a straightforward and, in my view, compelling theory of change. It looks something like this:
1. Each time I’ve given nonprofit leader X a grant and asked her to spend it wisely to make the world a better place, she has succeeded beyond my expectations.
2. I will give nonprofit leader X a grant and ask her to spend it wisely to make the world a better place.
3. Therefore, nonprofit leader X will likely succeed beyond my expectations.
Nonprofit leader X inspires our trust because of her talent, her intelligence, and her ability to marshal resources and be a good leader. These qualities abide with her and account for her consistently good performance. It’s not irrational—nor, by extension, is it a bad strategy—to invest in people with qualities like these.
I would suggest that we leave the definition of what constitutes a grantmaking strategy wide open and simply assume that grantmakers have some idea of how their grants might lead to their desired effects. We might need to expend some effort making these ideas explicit, but at the end of the day the question that matters most is not, “Do we have a strategy?” (most of us do) but rather, “Is it any good?” quickly followed by, “And how do we know?”*
There are ways, I believe, to address these questions without succumbing to the allure of theories of change and other forms of superstition. I also believe that something has to be done to bridge the yawning gulf between our stated aspirations and our actual effects on the world. As grantmakers, we should either step up our game or get out of the way and let somebody else try.
Coming up: Grantmaking Strategy, Part 3: Taking a Harder Look At Some Common Social Change Strategies
* I would also add, “Ultimately, is there any empirical evidence to support the claim that well articulated grantmaking strategies generally lead to better outcomes?”