“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley” [often go awry] —Robert Burns, To a Mouse (1786)

Almost all plans that attempt to predict the interactions among people are in the end unreliable, as poet Robert Burns so eloquently writes. And nowhere is that concept more clear than when examining the efforts of organizations as they strive to change society for the better.

Complex problems such as poverty, obesity, and climate change are the result of an intricate web of factors, making it not only difficult to pinpoint the root cause of a problem, but even more difficult to devise ways to solve the problem.

Despite the difficulty of doing so, leaders of social change organizations must develop strategies for solving our important social problems, even while knowing that they will probably have to change those strategies soon after embarking on them. One of the important skills that leaders of social change organizations must learn is precisely that: how to create a strategy that accommodates the inevitability of change, and how to continually reexamine that strategy and alter it as conditions change and lessons are learned.

The cover story in this issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review, “Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World,” takes on this important subject. The authors, FSG consultants John Kania, Mark Kramer, and Patty Russell, contend that all too often foundations have adopted a rigid approach to strategic philanthropy that is based on the assumption that one can have a great deal more certainty about the ultimate outcomes of any strategy than is warranted by the messiness of the real world. The authors believe that in many situations foundations should adopt a more emergent approach to strategy that embraces change and plans for adjustments as conditions warrant.

Because this is such an important topic, we are presenting the article in our new “Up for Debate” format. SSIR asked a number of philanthropy’s most important thinkers and doers to comment on the article. These include practitioners like Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker, Vodafone Foundation’s Mark Speich, and Rockefeller Foundation’s Zia Khan, along with academics like Harvard University’s Christine W. Letts and Columbia University’s Kenneth Prewitt. (To read all of the respondents’ comments, go to www.ssireview.org.)

The general consensus among respondents is that in many instances it is important for philanthropists to use some sort of emergent approach to creating and implementing strategic plans. Many felt, however, that doing this was mostly common sense.

Sadly, not all philanthropists use common sense, and not all philanthropists understand the need for an emergent approach or have the skills and knowledge to devise a process for developing and implementing strategic plans in ways that anticipate and accommodate changing conditions.

The title of this column is “Planning for Uncertainty.” That may seem to some like an oxymoron. But it’s an approach that acknowledges the realities of creating social change. After all, as Burns reminds us, even our best-laid schemes often go awry.

Read more stories by Eric Nee.

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