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One of the first sessions at the Council on Foundations conference was the somewhat mis-titled Philanthropic Strategy—Too Much of a Good Thing? The session was put together by Chris Cardona of the TCC Group, a consultancy that helps foundations and non-profits with strategy among other things. I say the session was somewhat mis-titled because none of the speakers made anything like an argument that there was “too much” strategy happening in foundations—all were very pro-strategy. As a result there wasn’t a great deal of debate but there were some interesting points made:

* Jacob Harold of the Hewlett Foundation noted that many of the complaints about foundation strategy in the non-profit world are really complaints about foundations being jerks, disrespectful and arrogant. A quick illustration came from Fatima Angeles of the California Wellness Foundation who related a story about overhearing a non-profit CEO complain that her foundation was “not strategic,“ while Hewlett Foundation was, “too strategic”—in both cases because the foundations had turned down a grant application. All agreed that foundations needed to work on “not being jerks.“

* There is still far too little foundation strategy happening. It was just a few years ago that the Center for Effective Philanthropy put out its excellent investigation into foundations’ use of strategy and found the field sorely lacking—even those foundations that described themselves as strategic couldn’t produce anything that met a very broad definition of strategy. That’s still the case based on a comment made at a later session where a presenter from FSG noted that most foundations they surveyed could not accurately describe how much they were spending (in money or people) on evaluation.

* Someone from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy asked a question about how accountable foundations’ are in their formation and implementation of strategy yielding this rare gem of truth-telling from Jacob Harold: “Foundations are the most unaccountable institutions in America today.“ Harold went on to say that he doesn’t believe a fully “democratic” approach to forming strategy would be very effective, but it was incumbent on foundations to be as transparent as possible about their strategies and their strategy process.

That spurred me to wonder: Would a fundamentally democratic approach to foundation philanthropy—where strategy and grantmaking was essentially outsourced to communities—truly be worse than the oligarchic model that currently dominates? I’m by no means a populist and I think what we’ve seen of contest/voting philanthropy over the last few years says, “Yes, it would be worse.“ But I don’t think the answer is actually all that clear. Worth pondering, and I’m certainly interested in others’ thoughts.

Comments

When I hear “outsourcing strategy to communities,“ I hear “give up control.“ I don’t think that’s the right way to think about it.

I designed and led the Wikimedia open strategic planning process last year, and one of the things I emphasized to folks at the Foundation was that they were still participating in the process. It wasn’t about giving up control, it was about sharing it and not imposing hierarchy. We invited everyone and anyone to be co-creators, and we had over 1,000 people participate in the process. In practice, my team as well as folks at the Foundation still had a strong say in the outcome. The community respected what we had to say, because we were genuinely listening and participating on an equal playing field.

Every organization—foundation and otherwise—could benefit from making their process more transparent and participatory. It doesn’t have to be radical, and it would result in huge gains.

The bigger opportunity is in emphasizing clarity. Only five percent of the workforce know what their company’s strategy is. That’s partially because most processes are insular, but it’s also because most strategies are overwrought with “rigorous” complexity.

As a foundation, I’d first ask what that number is for people within my organization, then I’d think about what it would take to get that internal number to 100%. Then I’d think about what percentage of our external network knew what our strategy was.

April 13, 2011

Hi Tim - thanks for attending the session and for your thoughtful post. What I found interesting is that the debate was not so much about strategy per se as about a particular approach to strategy. It’s one thing to be in favor of a coherent framework for decision-making guided by clarity about outcomes and priorities for allocating resources. On that level, we can all agree that more strategy is good, and I think we heard that from the panelists.

But it’s on the two questions of accountability to communities (which you touch on) and who *develops* the strategy that I think disagreement continues in the field. Coming out of the panel, I’d be interested to see further discussion on those two points.

April 13, 2011

Tim,

Thanks for the thoughtful post here.  Foundations have a real responsibility to society; at their best, I think they (we) meet that responsibility.  But it’s important that we constantly try to get better.

Foundations should try to squeeze as much impact as possible out of limited resources.  That’s why strategy’s important.  But foundations can only succeed at creating that impact in partnership with grantees, applicants, and other stakeholders.  That’s why it’s not just morally important to treat them with dignity and respect, it’s instrumentally important. 

Foundations don’t have voters or direct customers—accountability mechanisms that force external engagement.  If foundations are not rigorous in their decisionmaking, they allow this flexibility to become a weakness .  But if foundations take advantage of this flexibility to be creative and deeply impact-oriented, they can turn it into a strength.  Let’s hope foundations can increasingly do the latter. 

Jacob Harold
(Hewlett Foundation)

PS: I was glad to see Eugene’s post, too.  Wikimedia’s strategy process was/is fascinating—very interesting balance of centralization and decentralization.

April 14, 2011

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