Stanford Social Innovation Review : Informing and inspiring leaders of social change



Five Things Strategy Isn’t

The language, tools, processes, and practices of philanthropy have evolved steadily and dramatically, but strategy needs rescuing.

The Value of Strategic Planning & Evaluation The Value of Strategic Planning & Evaluation In this ongoing series of essays, practitioners, consultants, and academics explore the value of strategy and evaluation, as well as the limits and downsides of these practices.

In the 1980s, strategic planning was a novel concept in the nonprofit sector. Typically, a facilitator designed a retreat, helped folks in the room have a conversation, and documented what they came up with. Flip charts and grape-scented markers were the 80’s version of high-tech planning tools. Foundations, if they had plans, didn’t share them; mostly they had issue areas and guidelines for grantseekers (who were expected to have plans). The logic model was slowly growing in popularity among nonprofits and foundations. The lingo was inputs, outputs, and outcomes; the data were quantitative and qualitative; and the approaches were formative and summative.

Then came the 90s—a time of tremendous wealth creation and growth in philanthropy. For good or ill, the concepts of competitive positioning, entrepreneurship, and venture capital were ported over from business, along with energetic, living donors who questioned the traditional practices of philanthropy. We also saw the rise of organizational effectiveness, with funders increasingly providing resources to help grantees build strong organizations. No surprise, all this affected the supply of services, catalyzing the birth of consulting firms dedicated to helping the mission-driven organization with strategy, evaluation, and everything in-between. These experts-for-hire changed the game.

Toward the end of the decade, newly minted philanthropy infrastructure organizations turned the lens on the funder: Don’t foundations need to be effective too? Doesn’t the effectiveness of the funder affect the success of the grantee? Strategic philanthropy took flight. A drive for focus, niche, brand equity, and impact among the growing number of foundations that self-identified as “strategic” turned up the heat on evaluation too, and there was a scramble. There were efforts to define and measure social return on investment (SROI). Utilization-focused evaluation, a concept and practice pioneered by Michael Quinn Patton, gained special resonance in philanthropy, which was beginning to demand more than a report card after the end of a program or an initiative. New conversations sprouted up about attribution versus contribution, and improving rather than proving, as we wrestled with the frequent mismatch between what we were trying to accomplish and the measurement tools at hand.

The first decade of the new millennium had its own breakthroughs. Strategy again flexed to embrace the concepts and new tools of scenario planning, systems theory, and human-centered design, as leading thinkers and practitioners pushed to address the complexity and intractability of problems, and the dynamism of the times. Evaluation again worked to keep pace.

Today, evaluation is sometimes developmental or even real-time. There are passionate proponents of participatory evaluation and beneficiary voice, as well as those committed to the quasi-experimental design of the randomized control trial. And there are those who appreciate the whole buffet and look for the right tool for the job, understanding that evaluation may not have it all but that it can serve different needs. We even have a Center on Innovation in Evaluation, and big data is on our lips and in our pockets, along with our iPhones.


Forgive the oversimplifications (and historical anomalies) of this brief tour. There is much more to this story, but the point is that our language, tools, processes, and practices—in fact, the very profession of philanthropy—have evolved steadily and dramatically. The field is maturing even as wicked problems become both more intractable (by the oleo of pressures on natural resources, the ineffectiveness of institutions founded for different times, and fragmentation of efforts) and more solvable, because of new actors, new models, and the ubiquity and affordability of powerful tools and technologies.

In my view, the dynamic duo of strategy and evaluation belong very close to the heart of our journey onward.

The current debate about the value of strategic philanthropy is healthy. In fact, “strategic” is now such a ubiquitous term for describing anything good or worth doing that it nearly lost meaning and needs rescuing. But calling something strategic doesn’t make it so.

Strategy isn’t strategy...

When it’s fixed. A good strategy is much more than a map or compass. Those tools orient you in only two dimensions against fixed landmarks. Strategy requires more. We need a suite of tools more like gyroscopes, sextants, and barometers to help us steer through the uncertain future. In the words of Rosabeth Moss Kantor, “Strategy is a lot like improvisation—setting themes, destinations, directions, and then improvising around those themes.” Our tools and experts need to help us do that.

When it’s insulated. The actions and investments of others affect our work daily. Targets are shifting constantly, and the drive to make sense of things can lead to oversimplification. Context is (nearly) everything when it comes to strategy, meaning strategy needs to consider the facts. If we don’t marry evaluation and strategy, both are underpowered, and a rational way forward can quickly turn into mere rationalization.

When it doesn’t consider people. It may be comforting to plan the work and work the plan, but that approach just isn’t realistic. Strategy needs to help us think and act flexibly to achieve a goal. Plans or models, however elegant, will always stand or fall against the human system, and organizations are nothing more or less than collections of people who are more or less resistant to change. The best strategies are well researched, clearly and crisply communicated, focused, and elegant; they aspire, and they inspire. But organizations and communities are messy. Strategy and evaluation are means to a greater end. Real leaders use them to galvanize collective action, and guide learning and adaptation.

When it’s old, hidden, or boring. Things get old really, really fast in our networked and technological world. Five- or even three-year plans are almost quaint these days. Tome-like documents may seem serious, but they are rarely alive, inspiring, or truly influential. When a strategy is current, compelling, and shared, others can understand it. Other organizations can consider our work as they make their own plans, and vice versa. We don’t have to go all the way down the path to collaboration to get some reciprocal benefits across diverse efforts. And that would be strategic.

When we are too attached to it. In 1996, during my first months as a program officer for management assistance at the Packard Foundation, I went to visit John Gardner, founder of Independent Sector and former head of the Carnegie Corporation. I was sobered by my new responsibilities and craved some wisdom. I went to the right place. He told me that he was concerned about a trend he was seeing in philanthropy, which put too much weight on the ideas of foundation staff, and said, “Philanthropy is the only source of truly flexible capital for the social good.” He went on to say that he thought the most important thing he did in his days at Carnegie was to listen to and support good ideas from the field. He was strategic, but he also understood the danger of falling too much in love with one’s own ideas.

Creating the Future

I am both a proponent and a practitioner of strategy and evaluation. I’m also an optimist. (Pessimism is, after all, the quintessential short-term strategy.) Here are three of my predictions (or rather, aspirations) for the next chapter in the unfolding story strategy and evaluation:

Strategy will be put in its place as we continue to refine our thinking and practice. We will still be able to practice it well or poorly, but the current debate will knock it off its pedestal. When we look strategy (and evaluation) in the eye, we will see a useful and evolving suite of tools—no more, no less. Practiced well, and in tandem, they will continue to be powerful aids for decision-making but never substitutes for judgment.

We simply won’t settle for blunt instruments. Nonprofit leaders, philanthropists, and consultants will continue to demand and invent better tools and practices in strategy and evaluation, and will routinely share the results of our experiments with new tools and approaches so that we accelerate the progress of the whole sector.

We will cultivate smart followership in our approach to strategy and evaluation, and it will help counter the last two decades of drive to find a niche, lead, differentiate, and build a brand. We are none of us solo actors; that thinking has run its course. We need to aggregate more than data. We need to get together in the interests of making big changes that matter. And we will.

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  • BY Jed Emerson

    ON March 18, 2014 07:37 AM

    No surprise given the source, but just a really nice framing of how we got here and where we’re headed.

    These are, fundamentally, the issues we need to be keeping in mind. I would add that for asset owners (whether family offices or foundations) pursuing a Total Portfolio Management approach (wherein 100% of the assets are being managed for impact/sustainable responsible returns) the challenges and opportunities for linking dynamic strategy with evaluation and performance assessment is a very strong imperative.

    Just a really great time to be a part of this journey—and thanks for teeing this all up in such a nice way, Barbara!

  • Stuart Burden's avatar

    BY Stuart Burden

    ON March 18, 2014 09:06 AM

    Terrific recap of key evaluation milestones. Thanks for the memories, Barbara!

    While scanning your list of “Strategy Isn’t Strategy ...” I was looking for a bit of discussion about the time necessary to see real change. Yes, there are effective short-term strategies. Too often, however, evaluations are fixated on what amount to be short-term achievements, asking what happened (or will happen) during the current grant period (six months? one year?). This questioning is important to detect indicators of movement, but many of the most profound efforts in philanthropy took years, or decades.

    ‘Looking forward to continuing the conversation!

  • BY Eleanor A. Smith

    ON March 18, 2014 12:17 PM

    Thanks for the great recap!

    Your last paragraph really struck a chord. Despite the growing collective impact movement and other collaborative evaluation efforts, most nonprofits still try to distinguish their unique contributions—largely because their grantmakers and donors want to know. I agree that philanthropic leaders “need to aggregate more than data” and themselves become models of “smart followership”.

    I’m heartened by your optimism and look forward to further discussion.

  • John Anner's avatar

    BY John Anner

    ON March 18, 2014 02:04 PM

    Barbara, this is really excellent. Nice summary of the tools and limitations of strategy. My endless, burning quest is to figure out how to use strategy to locate that “flexible capital” you talk about. After so many years in this non-profit business, it seems like philanthropic capital is getting less flexible, rather than more. Where can we find truly flexible capital, the kind that lets us break out of the non—profit starvation cycle where we constantly chase program funding with ever-more restrictive “overhead” allocations? There are some interesting pilots or ideas out there, like social impact bonds, but they are quite rare and highly limited in scope.
    When I started in my current job eleven years ago, I was asked to prepare a strategy document for the board. I did so, and entitled it “Where’s the Money Going to Come From?”
    The implied deal with foundations is that if we on the non-profit side do all this extra work to document results, measure impacts, evaluate outcomes, manage knowledge and share everything with the rest of the social change community, funds will flow.
    I wonder if that is true. . . I’d like to hope so!

    Thanks for this great summary.


  • BY Maya Dunne

    ON March 24, 2014 02:31 PM

    Barbara—Thanks for this great summary.  I found myself re-living the journey of some of the non-profits and foundations I have worked with over the years.  Great points!

    I saw one of your final points, and thought the sentence “We will cultivate smart followership in our approach to strategy and evaluation” was instead we will cultivate smart FELLOWSHIP .........until I read further. 

    One of the learnings I have had over the years, is the amazing benefits of asking the non-profit community for insights and direction or other disciplines.  I thought that was were you were going. 
    The idea of cross-disciplined perspectives, that includes folks from other “sectors” and from other disciplines has been mind-blowing in some processes.  And the idea that many of the areas we are trying to change are very complex and require a way to look at the many layers? 

    Thanks again!!
    Maya Dunne

  • Barbara Kibbe's avatar

    BY Barbara Kibbe

    ON March 25, 2014 07:01 AM

    My thinking has been made richer by all of your comments. I can ditto all of these thoughtful entries. Yes, our planning needs to be dynamic even if our goal is a steady north star. Yes, we need to be patient as we adjust to short-term challenges while keeping the long-term win front-of-mind. We can’t all be beacons for “unique” approaches or models or we merely exacerbate the fragmentation of the last decades. We need to make the marketplace for “investment” capital for social good more sensible. And yes, that does mean good fellowship on both sides of the funding equation. These things are all within our reach.

    I feel the urge to quote my fellow optimist and favorite futurist, Peter Schwartz. In his book INEVITABLE SURPRISES, he wrote: “Navigating the future means being prepared to act in any season, and to shift from the mindset of one season to another as the environment changes. It means learning to recognize the rhythms of change before us, to avoid denial about them, and to practice our responses to them before they are upon us.  If you feel overwhelmed by the potential of surprises, your view of the future will be dark. You will continually expect to be hit by one unanticipated crisis after another, and your expectations will be met.  On the other hand, you can approach the future with a sense of lighthearted enthusiasm—thoughtful,but eager to see what is coming next.”

    I can’t wait to see where we all choose to take the future in our work and our world.

  • BY Richard L. P. Solosky, MNM

    ON March 26, 2014 08:30 AM

    I’d agree that collaboration is critical today, but this whimsical wish for a return to the old days is unrealistic. Finding your niche, leading in your field, differentiation among others, and building your brand all lead to focus. Focus leads to optimized impact.

  • Barbara Kibbe 's avatar

    BY Barbara Kibbe

    ON March 26, 2014 09:15 PM

    And one per niche in a field with 77,000 foundations is a lot of shallow niches. I’m looking for some bigger impressions…

  • BY Ann Lehman

    ON April 3, 2014 02:30 PM

    I’ve been doing planning of one sort or another for a long time and have also seen the different phases, terms, evaluations come and go.  Who ever thought brainstorming would go out of fashion as some might suggest should happen. Strategic to me still means the opposite of reactive (which sadly is still the way many nonprofits operate -those that are so busy providing services that can’t step back and be anything but reactive).  Whatever the terms strategic involves looking at the future and the various ways one can get there, and evaluation is looking back at how well you did (hopefully in making a difference).  Regardless of what one calls it this is a valuable exercise for nonprofit boards and staff to go through periodically.

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