Five Myths that Perpetuate Poor Philanthropic Strategy

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“Stop, Daddy!”

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.

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  • BY Chris Thompson

    ON February 12, 2014 04:26 PM


    Thank you for writing this. You have hit some very important points and your perspective is very helpful in my work with foundations who are working together to deal with these and other myths. The fixed nature of so many logic models and strategies is indeed a critical issue. We live in an era of rapid change. We all must learn to adapt, and philanthropy is in a position to help other sectors do so.

  • BY Phil Buchanan

    ON February 12, 2014 05:52 PM

    Chris, Thanks for your comment. The best foundation strategists are constantly looking to understand how the context for their work has changed, and how their strategies need to evolve as a result. Phil

  • BY Eric J. Henderson

    ON February 14, 2014 09:37 AM


    Thank you for saying so much in a short take. Putting strategy in its right place gives room for a better, full view of what is possible (and needed) in the sector, esp. re what many will see as humdrum: logistics.

    For example: Where you say, “...real progress against the most vexing social problems requires that many people work together,” the logistical concerns (and latent strengths) are in the ability to form the right kinds of collaborations, the logistics being the technologies, organizational mgt, information supply chains, etc that make collaborations work to change what we target.

    Some writers (links below)  & go so far as to say “logistics eat strategy for lunch.” I don’t care about degrees of that as much as proper mgt of assets that enable strategy.
    “Victory does not necessarily go to those whose strategies are bold and daring, but to those who understand the importance of organisation and preparations for the long haul.”—
    “Both intellectually and viscerally, they understand that creating new tools and technologies can spawn new capabilities that in turn enable successful strategies. And that, in the end, is why successful leaders tend to prioritize logistics over strategy.”

    Best regards,


  • BY Phil Buchanan

    ON February 15, 2014 07:40 AM

    Eric, Thanks so much. I definitely feel it is a “both / and” not an “either / or.” Solid strategy is crucial but means little without outstanding implementation. And that is so often where it all falls apart. Thanks for your comment. Phil

  • Bill Cleveland's avatar

    BY Bill Cleveland

    ON February 19, 2014 10:22 AM

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article.

    I am certainly glad the prevailing view on managing tuberculosis 100 years ago was revised. As a leading foundation observed at the time, there was not enough money in the world to build enough sanataria to “cure” all tuberculosis patients. Medicine has come a long way since 1913.

    I would amend your myths to note that sometimes a novel solution is called for, especially when the existing solution(s) appear ineffective.

    Best wishes,
    Bill C.

  • BY Chris Langston

    ON March 13, 2014 01:45 PM

    Great Post Phil.  I agree with your list of myths.  I too believe that good use of strategy is the best way to have the impact we need to have in philanthropy. 

    One of my favorite quotes in this area is from General Eisenhower, arguing that the “plan is nothing; planning is everything.”  If the plan is a strategy, just having one won’t get you very far.  But not having done the work of creating one by thinking about the fundamental forces, constraints, and problems to be solved, you wont do well either.  A strategic plan really has to be a living thing, tended, updated, and informed by reality as you work.  See for an expanded discussion

    In this sense, I can agree with the otherwise very annoying aphorism that “execution trumps strategy.”  I don’t think you have anything to execute without a strategy/plan, but just having one is perhaps necessary but not sufficient for success.

    In addition to the military strategy analogy, I think another way of thinking about strategy is as a scientific hypothesis.  Hypotheses are derived from theories (like theories of change in philanthropy).  The theory represents an explanation of the phenomenon of interest and the hypothesis is a testable assertion derived from the theory.  The clearer the theory, the easier it is to specify a hypothesis in advance and test it to see if the theory can truly account for the data.  Since all theories are imperfect, they too need constant improvement in light of new evidence.  But the bigger and bolder a theory (strategy), the wronger it will be and the faster you can learn.

  • BY Phil Buchanan

    ON March 21, 2014 06:31 AM

    Chris, thanks for this great comment. Agree 100 percent. Phil

  • Great post, I agree in principle with all of these five.  Some comments.

    I think there are reasons why people dislike strategy:  it is too hard, too mysterious and likely beyond many.  But this is probably as it should be;  if a good strategy was obvious, easy to comprehend, transparent, we’d already be doing it.  Good strategy has to be hard to grasp, until it all unfolds.  Good strategy has to take big risks.

    Secondly, because it is so opaque, stuff that is not is often dressed up as strategy.  //“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.”// these are not strategy but platitudes.

    Your #5.  Good strategy challenges the heart because it focusses which requires sacrifices.  But it also gives an organisation a purpose and a direction.  Good strategy gives an organisation a soul, even if by superficial measures it seems heartless.

    Finally, a strategy is meaningless without a mission.  You have to know where you want to get to in order to develop the strategy to get there.  A lot of organisations have soft missions, which makes strategy also soft.  In such a scenario, any strategy is as good as any other, and is thus not strategy.  This makes it hard, because it challenges you to have a hard mission, something that is uncomfortable to a lot of people.

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