Challenging the Orthodoxies of Philanthropy

Are traditional assumptions about how we “do” philanthropy preventing us from finding new and better ways of working?

Success stories about social change rarely start with large guns. But, as it turns out, there’s a lot that philanthropy can learn from looking at the history of artillery—the cannons that would get drawn to the edge of a battlefield, first by horses and later by large trucks, to shell the enemy from a distance.

According to military folklore, shortly before World War II the US and British armies conducted a joint exercise and came to a strange realization: The American artillery team fired just a little bit faster than the British squad every time. They analyzed the process and found that just before the British would fire, several soldiers would step back and pause for a second. They would wait until the gun fired, and then rejoin their team to reload.

No one was certain why this hitch was part of the process. When asked, the soldiers simply explained, “That’s how we were trained to do it.” The military asked several experts to get to the bottom of the slowdown. But no one could figure it out until a veteran from the Second Boer War finally provided the answer. He watched the process, thought about it for a minute, and then explained: “I know what they’re doing,” he said. “They’re holding the horses.”

Because back when teams of horses pulled the guns to the battlefield, if no one stepped back to hold the horses’ reins, the animals would bolt at the sound of the shot. Amazingly—decades after horses were no longer involved—the practice carried on.

Understanding Orthodoxies, Good and Bad

Our colleagues at the innovation strategy firm Doblin refer to such holdovers as orthodoxies—deeply held beliefs about “how things are done” that often go unstated and unquestioned. You can find them everywhere—in the mind of an individual, the protocols of an organization, even the best practices of an entire industry.

They can be highly useful: Orthodoxies help create standard practices that enable individuals and institutions to function more efficiently. But they can also lead to a dogmatic resistance to change and (as with the soldiers) blind spots in decision-making that can prevent organizations from developing better ways of working.

Every organization and industry has orthodoxies. In its early days, Southwest Airlines challenged many of the commercial aviation industry’s longstanding practices—getting rid of first class, flying only one type of airplane, and using a customer service model aimed at making the flying experience “fun.” In the bookselling industry, Amazon has flipped several orthodoxies in recent years, first by building its business model around the idea that books could be sold online rather than at a brick-and-mortar store, and again by making a bet on e-books instead of sticking to the idea that reading requires paper-based products.

Orthodoxies in Philanthropy

The field of philanthropy has its share of orthodoxies too. For example, the idea that grants are a foundation’s most important product, that funders shouldn’t take controversial positions, that philanthropy should support only proven approaches, that foundations should invest their assets to maximize financial returns. The list is nearly endless.

But as the world around philanthropy changes rapidly, it’s important to consciously examine the orthodoxies that guide practice and determine whether these old assumptions are still valid, and whether we ought to carry them forward or flip them on their heads—partially or completely.

Many innovative funders are already beginning to question some of the most deep-seated orthodoxies of the field. Take the Telluride Foundation, a small community foundation in Colorado. Telluride is countering the common belief that foundations operate only in the nonprofit world. The foundation manages a venture accelerator for early-stage and startup businesses in areas such as tourism, energy, and education. Each year, it enrolls up to six entrepreneurs in a five-month accelerator camp that includes equity investment, mentorship, and networking. The program taps Telluride’s community of entrepreneurs and second homeowners as mentors, coordinates with small-business development centers for targeted training, and runs an online community forum for the entrepreneurs.

Another example is the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, one of a number of foundations that are now challenging the assumption that foundations are built to be permanent. The foundation has elected to spend down its assets by 2020, guided by the belief that applying its assets more intensively in the short term can make a greater impact on California’s most-urgent education and environmental challenges than giving just a small fraction of its assets in perpetuity.

Or look at the way the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF) has flipped the traditional idea that philanthropy should stay out of public policy. SVCF has taken a strong stand against payday lenders by testifying at city, county, state, and federal government meetings to educate officials; meeting one-on-one with legislators to ask for their vote on bills; and even putting a lobbyist on retainer. The foundation has funded 501(c)(3)s and 501(c)(4)s, as well as city government departments, to conduct research and raise awareness, and has supported a coalition of grantee and foundation advocates against predatory lending. As a result of the foundation’s work, 12 local municipalities established ordinances to cap the number of payday lenders that operate in their areas, and state lawmakers enacted new regulations strengthening consumer protections, such as stopping attempts to raise the maximum loan amount and establishing a payday-loan alternative pilot program.

Finding and Flipping Orthodoxies That Have Outlived Their Usefulness

These types of examples only begin to scratch the surface of what might be possible if we begin to actively talk about the orthodoxies of philanthropy. Orthodoxies are by definition rarely questioned or challenged, making them extremely difficult to surface, discuss head-on, and move past. But continuing to simply do business as usual may mean that philanthropic organizations miss out on critical opportunities for impact. Flipping deep-seated orthodoxies can lead to dramatic improvements in practice and even point the way to fundamentally new models for doing business.

Innovative funders can begin by creating time and space—even if it’s just an hour at a staff or board meeting—to think explicitly about the orthodoxies within their own operations, brainstorming as many of these engrained assumptions as possible. The simple act of naming the orthodoxies can be a powerful exercise in itself—and a good reminder that just because things have been done in a certain way in the past doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best way to continue to do them in the future.

Once funders identify their own orthodoxies, they can ask a cascading set of questions about each one:

  1. Does the orthodoxy still make sense, or should we flip it, either partially or completely?
  2. Are there others in philanthropy, other industries, or other places that are challenging the orthodoxy and doing things differently?
  3. What would it look like if we flipped the orthodoxy? How would the work be different and what new solutions might emerge?

By identifying and challenging orthodoxies in this way, organizations can begin to reimagine their business models in the context of today’s rapidly changing world. This isn’t necessarily to say that new ways of working are better—but the process of being conscious of existing orthodoxies, and intentionally questioning whether they still make sense, can be the first step to ensuring that your organization isn’t left holding the horses in the years to come.

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  • BY Paul Shoemaker

    ON June 18, 2015 03:10 PM

    hell yes! Is that clear enough?! smile And a big reason those orthodoxies stick for so long is because there is NOTHING external that forces the change. In this philanthropic sector, we have to impose excellence upon ourselves

  • BY Phil Buchanan

    ON June 19, 2015 07:02 AM

    I am all for challenging orthodoxies.

    But there is a long history of foundation involvement in policy—nothing remotely new or particularly rare about this, as I pointed out here.

    Same thing for limited-life foundations. Long history. Agree too many default to perpetuity. Perhaps folks should read about Julius Rosenwald?

    Maybe we need to understand history a little better (so we know whether in fact something is an “orthodoxy” or not) and learn from it. Foundations (and their consultants) should consider all the tools that might be deployed to achieve their goals, but they should do it in a context of understanding of what others have done—and learned—rather than thinking they are the first when they usually are not.

    Oh, and re investing practices—many of the large foundations are doing impact investing, as our recent report makes clear, though usually the dollars involved are relatively small.

    Phil Buchanan
    President, The Center for Effective Philanthropy

  • Gabriel Kasper's avatar

    BY Gabriel Kasper

    ON June 19, 2015 10:40 AM

    I agree Phil. There are of course many great lessons from the history of philanthropy that we all should pay attention to, in these areas and beyond. Your post on “not-so-new” new concepts was a good one.

    But we aren’t claiming that these examples are something new, merely that they are cases of funders actively challenging some of the more deep-seated “defaults” of the field (that many of us don’t even think to question).

    The organizations that we cite aren’t the first to do these things (thus question #2 that we suggest posing when trying to challenge orthodoxies - about whether you can find others who are already doing things differently). But they are good illustrations of the fact that there is real value in thinking about whether or not our old assumptions still make sense today.

    Unfortunately, just because an orthodoxy has been flipped by others before doesn’t necessarily make it less of an orthodoxy for the rest of the field.

  • BY Phil Buchanan

    ON June 19, 2015 04:50 PM

    I appreciate your reply, Gabriel. But I think the practices you describe are, in fact, much less rare than you portray them to be, historically and today. That’s the point I am making.

  • BY Zia Khan

    ON June 21, 2015 06:28 PM

    Phil and Gabriel - in your thread, it could be useful to distinguish between challenging orthodoxies and adopting new practices, which are not necessarily flip sides of each other. There’s an idea of “competing commitments’” in change management theory that describes the tension people experience when they want to try a new set of behaviors (new practices), but are unable to because they’re not even aware of competing commitments to other behaviors that get in the way (orthodoxies). Katherine Fulton reminded us of Peter Drucker’s work on purposeful abandonment “Planned, purposeful abandonment of the old and of the unrewarding is a prerequisite to successful pursuit of the new and highly promising.”, which we’ve found quite helpful

  • Phil Buchanan's avatar

    BY Phil Buchanan

    ON June 21, 2015 07:11 PM


    Thanks for weighing in.  I think I am not smart enough for all this. ....

    I read the teaser for the piece on the SSIR site, which asks, “Are traditional assumptions about how we ‘do’ philanthropy preventing us from finding new and better ways of working?” So then I read the piece and its examples of “new and better ways of working” and thought two things: 1) some of the examples (policy, spend-down) don’t represent anything especially new; and 2) these practices also aren’t that rare today either—in other words, they are not in tension with the “defaults” in philanthropy. (It’s harder for me to think of a very large foundation that doesn’t seek to influence policy than one that does. See for example RWJF on health; Hewlett and Packard on climate; Gill and Haas Jr. on marriage equality; and a long, long list on education – often to the consternation of those who don’t agree about what the right policy might be.)

    So all this suggests, to me, anyway, that “orthodoxies” aren’t preventing folks from doing the things described (or they wouldn’t be doing them). On impact investing, for example, we see more than 40 percent of large foundations saying, in response to a recent CEP survey, that they do this—although the dollars remain small. (And, of course, questions about the impact of impact investing remain.)

    I agree that not challenging orthodoxies is problematic. I just don’t think the examples cited are on target…because I think they don’t actually make the point.

    And I would suggest that something that is also problematic is chasing fads. Or failing to learn from those who are doing—or have tried—things before us. Or casting about from one “new” thing, to the other.

    That’s all I am saying.

    Phil Buchanan


  • Christine Letts's avatar

    BY Christine Letts

    ON June 23, 2015 12:30 PM

    I agree with Phil on most of the above.  But I do think there are orthodoxies, many of which are more mundane, but may have more damaging or limiting effects on the field.  Let’s use the example grantmaking, which is certainly more ingrained in US philanthropy than in any other country, with the whole apparati that accompanies it - RFPs, scoring rubrics, grant amounts and time limits set by budgets rather than events, progress and learning, etc.  My colleagues Paula Johnson, Colleen Kelly and I just finished a study of high net worth giving in Latin America and I came away with a different view of foundation operating programs than I had before.  There is a lot of advantage to operating programs, particularly if a foundation is very place-based and dedicated to an issue long term.  The primary problem we and others observed is that this practice creates an environment in which it is difficult for nonprofits to grow and thrive.  I think it is worthwhile, as the authors suggest, to look at these types of practices and ask why we do them.

    An aside on the artillery example:  This illustration appears at the beginning of a chapter entitled “Gunfire at Sea”  in an old war book from the 50’s (sorry I cannot cite it right now).  I learned to teach this chapter from my good friend Dutch Leonard to explore the elements of the discivery and implementation of innovations in organizations.  It is worth reading, and perhaps can shed some interesting light on this discussion.  It is the story of a (now famous) malcontent in the Navy who fought the ordnance department of the Navy to implement a system of firing from a ship that actually took into account the pitch and roll of the vessel.  The lessons we tried to pull out were 1) someone willing to go against the standard practice 2) having a standard practice to compare it to 3) authority who both notices the innovation and 4) is willing to acknowledge that the transgression is actually progress.

    Chris Letts

  • BY Paul Shoemaker

    ON June 23, 2015 09:56 PM

    I’m a fan of everyone that has commented so far! smile I do think there is some semantics in here between orthodoxies and practices. Chris’ example of all the processes we’ve developed around “grant making” is a good example (and SVP isn’t “above the crowd” on this). Think about it - the timing and process is made to fit the grant MAKER in just about every possible way, with not nearly enough regard to what is needed real-time out in communities, in the market. The funding streams respond to what the funder wants, not nearly well enough to what our communities and beneficiaries need. I’m reminded of how Milken approached funding prostate cancer research - he’s done it (at least initially) very responsively and fast and the impact on the rates of prostate cancer are significant.

    Whether we call them orthodoxies or practices or whatever, we need to make a major shift to a funder world that is far more responsive to communities (outside-in) instead of what and how we like it as funders (inside-out)

  • N Mogilnik's avatar

    BY N Mogilnik

    ON June 24, 2015 02:59 PM

    Such thoughtful comments.  I would only add that fundamentally, I don’t think there’s much of anything new under the sun here, though I very much appreciate the encouragement to try at least to look anew at long-held beliefs and practices.  I have found through the years that philanthropy tends to latch on to new buzz words as if it’s “discovered” something.  My latest favorite is impact investing.  Isn’t that what effective giving has always been about?  And the whole rubric/measurement hysteria is no real improvement upon the one thing I think actually drives good philanthropy and why so much of it isn’t good, viz., the ability to ask good, probing, meaningful questions.  You can’t know if you’re arriving at a solution worth arriving at if you haven’t even posed questions worth asking.  And that is shockingly common in philanthropy.  Instead, you get a kind of Lemming behavior, in which lots of foundations latch on to the same thing, but without necessarily kicking the tires and looking closely under the hood of what they’re investing in.  Maybe that’s why so much seems—at least to me—to be some version of plus ca change, plus ca meme chose.  And then of course there’s the fundamental conservatism at the root of (even) liberal philanthropy, i.e., the risk avoidance, the strict payout formulas, and the commitment to perpetuating the foundations’ existence above all.

  • Gabriel, this is provocative and timely! Take legalizing drugs as an another example of a philanthropic orthodoxy. In the 80’s a few foundations commissioned a highly reputable firm to examine the drug problem in our country.  The major recommendation, among others, was to legalize drugs. The idea of foundations taking this stand was unthinkable, so it was unceremoniously shelved. I wonder if they would reconsider today, now that marriage equality and the ACA are no longer unthinkable?

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