Fierce Debate on Merits of Strategic Philanthropy

Is strategic philanthropy a wise course?

imageA fiery debate took place at the recent Grantmakers For Effective Organizations conference in San Francisco between Bill Schambra, director of the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, and Paul Brest, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Ed Skloot, former president of the Surdna Foundation, was the moderator, but as Schambra and Brest volleyed responses back and forth, Skloot joked that he was really just “roadkill.”

Bill Schambra dismissed the notion that foundations should be driven by strategic philanthropy and its central premise of having a theory of change, upon which results are measured.

“It is wildly unrealistic to postulate a theory of change and expect anything like its typically complex, fragile chains of cause and effect to play out in real life,” he said. 

Schambra noted that conservative foundations – Bradley, Olin, Scaife, and several others – are often held up as examples of strategic philanthropy. “That’s absurd,” he remarked. “These foundations merely capitalized on the political turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. To be sure, here and there and at particularly critical moments, the conservative intellectual apparatus contributed a key study or funded an important legal case or held a useful conference. But the foundations mostly stood back and watched for opportunities presented by events driven by others, rather than trying to force circumstances by detailed strategic planning.”

“What foundations can do, I would suggest, is be serious, quiet, attentive students of their surroundings, watching carefully for opportunities to enhance slightly the trends that they applaud, and diminish slightly the trends that they deplore.”

On the other hand, Paul Brest argued that foundations can no longer navigate by sheer “intuition.” As in the fields of medicine and business, they need to become data driven. “It’s not rocket science, but foundations need a clear view of what they want to accomplish and measure if they are getting there,” he said. 

Schambra responded, “What’s the point of everyone measuring if there’s no accepted measurement? Then we’d have hundreds of different ways of measuring, and it would be chaos and an insupportable burden to grantees.” 

One of the attendees, Gregg Behr, president of the Grable Foundation, noted that most foundations probably walk a balance between the two opposites presented by Brest and Schambra. Foundations could be strategic on one hand with some types of grantmaking, and then when opportunities arise, be nimble enough to take advantage of opportunities. He gave the example of the decision of the Grable Foundation to pull funding from the public school system in Pittsburgh, PA. Grable Foundation had a strategy for improving public education and yet was flexible enough that when they saw the opportunity to team up with other foundations and take a dramatic step to call attention to the issue, they did. 

This conference marked the 10th anniversary of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. The conference was attended by a sell-out crowd of over 600 grantmakers, nonprofits, and consultants. 

image Perla Ni, founder and former publisher of Stanford Social Innovation Review, is the founder and CEO of GreatNonprofits. She is also a co-founder of


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  • BY Daniel F. Bassill, D.H.L.

    ON August 13, 2013 10:03 AM

    I’d like to see data driven foundations host MOOCs like the one now being hosted by the Learning by Giving Foundation.  More than 1300 people are registered in the Google+ community. This is a link to the Google+ community for that MOOC.

    However, I’d like to see this go several steps further.

    a) focus the MOOC on specific issues the foundation is interested in supporting with its strategic philanthropy.

    b) use Social Network Analyis tools to create a map of who is participating. I’ve been trying to do this with a conference I host in Chicago. The graphics in this blog show participants.

    c) use Google maps to show where participants come from - build this into your event from the start so most participant are on the map. Here’s the map started by Learning By Giving Foundation after the event had started.

    d) create a theory of change that shows “who all needs to be participating” in your MOOC, and in efforts to solve the problem you are trying to solve. Use concept maps to illustrate the range of talent and networks. Here’s an example.

    After each event and gathering, share your maps to show who participated. Write some ‘sense making’ articles to show the diversity of participation, both based on the talent and networks who you want to have involved, as well as by the geographic distribution.

    Create a tool to map growth in participation from year-to-year so that you can show that more of “the right people” are in the conversation and sharing ideas with each other (and the rest of those who focus on the same issue). 

    Create a tool to map donations to areas of the world and organizations in those areas who doing the work to implement your theory of change. Do your analysis to show what parts of the world have people from your network supporting their efforts with on-going distributions of time, talent and cash, and which parts of the world are still undeserved because too few people focus their resources on these areas.

    If strategic philanthropy collects, organizes and shares this type of data perhaps those tools can be used by others and to support different causes.  Perhaps this type of mapping and analysis is being done. If so links to web sites showing this should be provided, and foundations paying for such work should be complemented.

    See my own thinking about growing networks at

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