Five Myths that Perpetuate Poor Philanthropic Strategy
That is the refrain, screamed from the back seat of the car, that I’ve heard from the day my older daughter could string together a few words—and really ever since—every time I sing along to the radio.
The problem isn’t that she and her younger sister, who has joined the lament, don’t like music. They love music, love to sing, and love to play their instruments.
They just don’t like my singing—and for good reason. I have a terrible singing voice.
The way my daughters feel about music—including bad music (like my singing)—is more or less the way I feel about strategy in philanthropy. I am a big proponent of more strategic philanthropy, better assessment of effectiveness to fuel learning and improvement, and iteration of strategy. But I have a real problem with poor strategy. It makes me want to scream “Stop!” from the back seat.
I think those in the philanthropic sector at times create poor strategies because of five prevalent myths:
Myth #1: Strategies and logic models are fixed and should not change—they are gospel. Bill Schambra’s critiques of strategy in philanthropy in a much-discussed talk at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for example, caricature strategy as unresponsive to changing conditions on the ground. Fact is, he has a point: Bad strategy is often unresponsive. I heard a vice president of programs at a major foundation confess that she thought one of her program areas was run based on an analysis of on-the-ground context that was right 10 years prior but was no longer relevant. No wonder she wasn’t seeing results! As Patti Patrizi and her colleagues pointed out in an excellent Foundation Review article, “Strategy implementation is highly unpredictable” in philanthropy. The best strategies respond to changing circumstances and data (including the perspectives of grantees and intended beneficiaries) about what’s working and what’s not.
Myth #2: Being strategic means working in an isolated and top-down way—not listening and responding to opportunities, or pursuing innovation. A good strategy, in fact, offers a framework for being opportunistic and pursuing innovations in light of what will logically lead to the achievement of your goals. A good strategy guides your decisions; you can evaluate which opportunities are more or less likely to move things in the direction you seek. The best foundations prioritize opportunities and pursue innovations based on their strategy.
Myth #3: Strategy is a business concept. This is a particularly damaging myth, fueled by media, consultants, and business school professors who strangely seem to equate effectiveness and “business practice” (whatever that is), and promote nonsensical terms such as “philanthrocapitalism.” In fact, the word “strategy” has its origins in the Greek word for “army”—and business has no more of a claim on it than the military or football teams. But strategy plays out differently in different arenas. Private foundations do not face the same competitive pressures as business, for example, and the challenge of timely measurement of progress against strategy is particularly difficult in philanthropy. Only if we recognize the challenge of measurement in philanthropy—how much more difficult it is to gauge philanthropic impact across grants than it is to calculate ROI on business investments—will we devote the time and energy that good evaluation of strategy requires.
Myth #4 (related to #3): A foundation’s strategy should be its strategy alone. Prominent consultants have urged foundations to focus on “unique positioning” and “unique activities,” do things “differently from others,” and choose the “best” grantees in the manner of “investment advisors in the business world.” But whereas in business competitive dynamics mean your strategy should be yours alone, for a foundation that is a recipe for failure! Although lately some leaders (who previously prized uniqueness) have presented shared strategy as a new idea, it has always been the case that real progress against the most vexing social problems requires that many people work together. That was true of the foundations, nonprofits, government agencies, and businesses that battled tuberculosis 100 years ago, and was—and is—true of the many organizations that have worked on other issues, such as gay rights, in subsequent decades.
Myth #5: Strategy takes the heart out of philanthropy. I have never understood this one, though I know it is a widely held belief. The most effective philanthropists and foundation leaders have embraced strategy and evaluation precisely because of how much they care—how badly they want to see results in their work. Yes, strategic work requires focus and discipline—and saying “no” more often. But it is the desire to see real results that provides philanthropists with the resolve to do the hard work good strategy entails. In a way, the heart provides the motivation for discipline. As former Executive Director of the Gill Foundation Rodger McFarlane explained so well in a video on strategically funding the LBGT civil rights movement shortly before his death, the Gill Foundation’s decision to become more strategic was rooted in frustration that a less-focused approach did not lead to results. He says, “There is an unlimited amount of injustice and suffering out there that I cannot mitigate. We have limited resources, we are rationing resources. So, part of the demand of this job is keeping this relentless focus on exactly what we said we are trying to do and staying clear, because there are so many appealing, urgent, necessary things out there.”
These five myths, unfortunately, have led to some bad strategy. But that doesn’t mean we should walk away from strategy, which I would argue has lead to virtually every great philanthropic success in history.
Many of the critiques of strategy and evaluation in philanthropy have merit, but to me, they are no more critiques of strategy and evaluation than my girls’ complaints about my singing are critiques of music.