UP FOR DEBATE: Foundations

Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World

To solve today's complex social problems, foundations need to shift from the prevailing model of strategic philanthropy that attempts to predict outcomes to an emergent model that better fits the realities of creating social change in a complex world.


Christine Letts
Rita E. Hauser Senior Lecturer in the Practice of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership Harvard Kennedy School

Traditional strategic philanthropy doesn't always work for what the authors call "simple" or "complicated" problems.

Kenneth Prewitt
Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs, Director of the Scholarly Knowledge Project Columbia University

Foundation history is littered with examples of refashioning grant strategies when unexpected events occur.

Darren Walker
President Ford Foundation

Strategic philanthropy too often minimizes or ignores complexity because it is difficult to understand and predict.

Mark Speich
CEO Vodafone Foundation

Philanthropy that doesn't provide for the uncertainties of human conduct is usually doomed to fail.

Zia Khan
Vice President for Initiatives and Strategy Rockefeller Foundation

A strategy for a complex problem should be seen as a framework for action, learning, and continual improvement.

Katherine Fulton
President Monitor Institute

Strategic philanthropy is smart but not wise, which is why so many leaders have voiced doubts about it.

Peter Frumkin
Professor of Social Policy and Director of the Nonprofit Leadership Program University of Pennsylvania

Whether the problem is simple, complicated, or complex, the challenge is where to set the boundaries.

Paul Brest
Emeritus Professor, Lecturer, and Faculty Co-Director Stanford Law School, Graduate School of Business, and Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society

It's best to think of simple and complex problems as lying on a continuum, not on two sides of a divide.

Edward Skloot
Founder Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy, Surdna Foundation

I am concerned that the odds against getting philanthropy to change course are almost too great to overcome in any reasonable time frame.

Jodi Nelson
Director of Strategy, Measurement, and Evaluation Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The new tools that the authors say philanthropists should use do not stand up under close scrutiny.

John Kania
Managing Director FSG
Mark Kramer
Co-Founder, Managing Director, Senior Fellow FSG, Harvard Kennedy School
Patty Russell
Director FSG

Last Word: John Kania, Mark Kramer, and Patty Russell respond to the eight people who responded to their article.

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  • BY Nathan Huttner

    ON May 15, 2014 03:14 PM

    Thanks for this challenging reflection on strategy under uncertainty. To draw on and connect two themes from the responses:

    First, as Paul Brest pointed out, the best strategic philanthropists have always taken an emergent approach, even to simple problems.  They consider the complexity of the system and keep an eye on it, building in ways to assess and learn from progress and the external context to guide them through the complexity. So the central tenets of emergent strategy have been the aspiration for many of us working on strategic philanthropy.

    Second, it’s worth differentiating between modes of failure. Mediocre strategic philanthropy may fall victim to over-simplification, but it can at least produces a bet which, even if bad, others can learn from. As Zia Khan wrote in his response, “you learn more by being specifically wrong than by being vaguely right”. Conversely, a mediocre emergent strategy could use system complexity as a crutch to avoid spelling out clear hypotheses. This, in turn, could easily lead to investing too little in too many spots or to analysis paralysis in which no direction is selected. Either possibility would likely produce little in the way of impact, and few meaningful lessons for others to learn from.

    From my perspective the right answer is somewhere in between the extreme caricatures of strategic philanthropy and emergent strategy. I vote for forming clear hypotheses, along with close attention paid to the world around so that the hypotheses can be continually improved.

    I look forward to the ongoing discussion about how the field can raise its level of strategic practice in many of the ways the authors suggest and as demonstrated by many of the best strategic philanthropists.

  • BY Phil Buchanan

    ON May 19, 2014 08:35 AM

    Patti Patrizi, among many others, has been making these very same arguments for years, if not decades. This very recent article is a good distillation of her perspective.

    http://evaluationroundtable.org/documents/Eyes Wide Open.pdf

    I attended an excellent conference of foundation folks she put together—with Henry Mintzberg as featured speaker—many years ago at RWJF.

    Many other advocates of foundation strategy, including those of us at the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), have for a decade been cautioning against the top-down, corporate, “unique value” approach that has been promoted by some of the very folks who now appear to feel quite differently. Here is one recent example, from SSIR.


    There is also, by the way, data on the use of strategy at foundations. We have studied this topic and put out, to date, these three reports on our findings.




    Phil Buchanan
    The Center for Effective Philanthropy

  • BY Rhonda Staudt

    ON May 19, 2014 11:00 PM

    Thank you John Kania, Mark Kramer, & Patty Russell for this enlightening article.
    Should we stop asking the question; “what are your anticipated outcomes” when sharing project ideas.  Let’s break the mold, move away from what’s been written and develop 21st century approaches to 21st century challenges.

  • Sara Taggart's avatar

    BY Sara Taggart

    ON May 20, 2014 08:34 AM

    This is a fantastic article.  How do we use this lens to think about when, where, what and how to measure impacts?  Often that is the rub.  We feel compelled to see “something…anything” as a result of investments and efforts, and thus revert to measuring the simple or complicated, at best.  Measuring impacts on the complex feels a bit like trying to gauge changes in the ocean after dropping pebbles from outer space.

  • BY Dan Bassill

    ON June 12, 2014 11:20 AM

    Another great article from FSG. Thank you.  I also have been focusing on engaging resource providers and service providers in on-going innovation and problem solving. I focus on helping youth in inner city neighborhoods connect with mentors, learning and other supports that support them as the move from first grade to the first job and beyond.  In this blog article I provide a graphic that illustrates the need to influence actions of resource providers as well as non profit leaders and illustrates the use of maps as a planning tool to assure a distribution of resources, and programs, in all the places where needed. http://tutormentor.blogspot.com/2014/05/building-tutormentor-org-capacity.html

  • Emily Giudice's avatar

    BY Emily Giudice

    ON June 12, 2014 01:22 PM

    There are two interesting discussions of this article being carried out elsewhere – on the blog of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (http://www.effectivephilanthropy.org/emerging-views-of-emergent-strategy/) and in an article in Nonprofit Quarterly (https://nonprofitquarterly.org/philanthropy/24337-strategic-philanthropy-so-yesterday.html). Those discussions respond to critiques by Phil Buchanan of the Center for Effective Philanthropy and Bill Schambra of the Hudson Institute, respectively. Please read these reactions and join in the conversation.

  • BY John Kania

    ON June 17, 2014 09:50 AM

    The authors of Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World, John Kania, Mark Kramer, and Patty Russell, offer a sincere apology to Patricia Patrizi and her colleagues for omitting a reference in our article to their two Foundation Review publications (cited below).  Although these Foundation Review publications were not a source for us, readers interested in this topic would have benefited from a reference to these perspectives. We became aware of these articles in December of 2013 during the final editing stages of our article with SSIR. By then, the academic research and foundation interviews that shaped our thinking had been completed. We deeply regret any unintended perception of disrespect for highly regarded colleagues.

    To rectify this oversight, we reached out to the editors at Stanford Social Innovation Review and they agreed to add these citations to the online version and future reprints. Ms. Patrizi’s et al thought leadership in complexity and emergence merits full study and consideration: Patricia Patrizi, M.A., Elizabeth Heid Thompson, B.A., Julia Coffman, M.S., and Tanya Beer, M.A., Evaluation Roundtable, “Eyes Wide Open: Learning as Strategy Under Conditions of Complexity and Uncertainty,” The Foundation Review 2013 Vol 5:3, pp 50-65. Patricia Patrizi, M.A., Elizabeth Heid Thompson, B.A., “Beyond the Veneer of Strategic Philanthropy,” The Foundation Review 2011 Vol 2:3, pp 52-60.

    FSG writes and publishes in the social sector because of our deep passion for supporting the hard work of social change under challenging and complex conditions.  Over our 14-year history we have operated with integrity in our publishing work and with our clients.  We write from first-hand experience, supplemented by ongoing research and dialogue with many in the field.  As a nonprofit mission-driven organization and a publisher of ideas, we welcome the spirited and sometimes messy debate of ideas that can advance thinking and practice.  We remain committed to continuous learning by working with our colleagues in the field to help accelerate positive social change.

  • Ben Cairns, Director Institute for Voluntary Actio's avatar

    BY Ben Cairns, Director Institute for Voluntary Actio

    ON June 18, 2014 12:49 PM

    Having followed this discussion with great interest from the other side of the Atlantic, it was reassuring to read the apology from the authors. Patti Pratizi and colleagues have been encouraging us to engage with the idea of ‘collective’, ‘emergent’ and ‘adaptive’ strategy and learning for some years now - indeed their Foundation Review articles have become require reading for a number of UK foundations grappling with change. So it seemed a little odd to find no mention of their work in the SSIR article.

    It was more than a little surprising, therefore, to then come across a video that calls emergent strategy a “new approach” and makes no reference to Patti Patrizi et al (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JzWOG4lzMTcI). 

    Whilst I appreciate the observation that the generation of ideas and concepts can be messy and blurred,  omissions of this kind might, at best, be regarded as sloppy and, at worst, disingenuous.  One would hope that, as members of an international community of researchers and thinkers, we can all act in the spirit of collegiality, show due regard for each other’s contributions and avoid vainglorious pursuits.

  • BY Jara Dean-Coffey

    ON June 18, 2014 06:24 PM

    I have been watching or reading this exchange for the past few weeks with mixed feelings.  On one hand, it says much about where we are as a field/sector/philanthropic industrial complex, that we can can have heated debate about strategies put forward and the integrity of those that do so.  it suggests we take this work seriously.

    On the other hand, it is saddening and maddening that those who have the privilege to inform the field (be they authors or publishers) can put forward ideas “from our experience” that do not acknowledge or recognize the research and experience of others.  It is not clear how anyone who does this work in our information saturated environment and let’s be honest, somewhat incestuous, believe their ideas were not informed by others who warrant acknowledgment.  Doing so does not diminish ones own contribution but places it more honestly in the context of the larger whole.

    That all being said, it is inspiring and affirming to see voices, that don’t have to,  rise up to name those things which cast a cloud on this work. Thank you.

  • BY Alisa Del Tufo

    ON June 19, 2014 11:51 AM

    I am happy to read such a thorough analysis of the dangers of rigidity and the assets of flexibility and relationship building. These are the fuel that all community organizers and change agents recognize as the most powerful aspects of wide, sustainable, complex change.
    My work as the founder of Threshold Collaborative, http://www.thresholdcollaborative.org,  is the fruition of many years of work in the civic sector. Threshold is dedicated to working with communities to design, develop and assess change. We focus one level deeper than this well written article goes….we focus on participant level knowledge, experience and insight. Sometimes called Participatory Action Research (PAR) this important strategy and philosophy highlights the power that the “lived knowledge” of community/program participants have in surfacing solutions to the challenges they face and assessing the impact of initiatives designed to make change. Ignoring their ideas, insights, know;edge and experience is a peril that we often fall into as professionals who seek to make things better!
    PAR and other community engagement strategies create buy in, develop and strengthen relationships and empathy, building an environment that nurtures the type of change we all seek: profound, meaningful and sustained. I encourage the writers and readers of this piece to look more deeply into these strategies!

  • Julia Coffman's avatar

    BY Julia Coffman

    ON June 19, 2014 07:08 PM

    This exchange has made me think. A lot. I am appreciative of this space to comment and to all those who have contributed here and elsewhere.

    It always has been my philosophy and the philosophy of my organization that the philanthropic sector can be a collegial space in which organizations that support foundation strategy and effectiveness should share ideas, build on one another’s work where it makes sense (there is no need to recreate the wheel or further confuse the sector), and communicate and learn from one another when we share areas of focus. And when we disagree, our patterns of working with one another should allow us to engage in healthy debate that further shapes our thinking. Of course our sector does not always function this way (as there is competition for resources and for thought leadership), but my experience is that to a large extent it does because we ultimately share the same aim of helping foundations and their grantees work toward more successful social change. Indeed, we have published and collaborated with FSG and other contributors to this exchange.

    For all of this to work, however, it is critical that we adhere to standard principles of professional practice—in our research, in our publishing, and in our dealings with one another. When this does not happen or we suspect there might be an issue, I believe it is important to call each other on it so that we can understand what happened and why and corrections can be made if needed. So I want to thank those who have played that role here and those who have responded. It is a good reminder for all of us working in this field to examine regularly how we conduct our work and ourselves.

  • BY Patty Russell

    ON July 1, 2014 07:00 PM

    Thank you, Ed, for the thoughtful comments in your new “Up for Debate” response on how the field might collectively push the conversation forward on emergence. We agree the “stickiness” of the concept can be elusive in practice, despite success stories of emergent strategies taking root and flourishing under specific circumstances and leadership. The structural and behavioral barriers you outline warrant additional discussion, and we believe many of your suggested next steps could prove quite helpful in engaging the field on this topic. In particular, we felt your first and second ideas, which emphasize the importance of peer learning, could help foster a productive dialogue about which tools are most valuable in practice to foundation leaders.

    As a start, we would ask foundation staff and board members: do the ideas in this article resonate with you? If yes, what have you found to be most successful tactics or greatest challenges in implementing them? What additional tools or peer learning opportunities would be helpful in advancing your work? And finally, are there other approaches you are employing to navigate complexity that you would like to share with the field?

    Again, thanks to Ed, Nathan and others for their reflections on the ideas presented in this article (e.g., the role of co-creation, working the attractors, and system fitness). We hope others will join the discussion and share their perspectives so that the field might, in Ed’s words, “hasten the steps toward emergence.”

    Patty Russell, FSG

  • BY Patty Russell & Hallie Preskill

    ON July 22, 2014 01:17 PM

    Thanks for the important question about whether or not there are metrics for assessing increased system fitness broadly.

    The simple answer is no… the construct of system fitness is abstract, multi-layered, and constantly evolving. Our perspective is that evaluation can’t create system fitness, but it can support its development by building the system’s capacity to learn. This is accomplished by strengthening feedback loops and improving access to, and the use of, information. Since the system (and the relationships that strengthen it) is constantly changing as dynamics shift, real-time sensing and learning are critical.

    Evaluation would therefore:

    1) focus on the ways in which (as well as how and to what effect) learning processes, in the form of feedback loops and other mechanisms, are providing access to meaningful, credible, and relevant information, and

    2) ensure that information is being used to make decisions relative to strengthening the system.

    For instance, Communities Foundation of Texas (CFT) took a developmental evaluation approach to assessing and evolving their system fitness strategy focused on the working poor in Dallas (read more about it here in their guest blog on FSG’s site (http://www.fsg.org/KnowledgeExchange/Blogs/SocialImpact/PostID/572.aspx). In CFT’s case, they collected and used data to develop a program for nonprofit leaders. This investment not only helped participants learn how to use data for strategic decision making, but it also increased the participants’ “connectivity” within the system, leading to a “compounding positive effect on the social impact we [CFT] are trying to achieve.”

    Another great resource we would recommend is from Carol Lawson, President of The David and Lucile Packard Foundation (http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs164/1104935062761/archive/1117689287523.html). Carol reflects on 50 years of grantmaking and offers case studies and tools about emergent strategy in their work, evaluation as a tool for impact, and a toolkit for sourcing new ideas.

    We at FSG continue to explore the evaluation implications of this article and plan to publish a learning brief on evaluating complexity in early October. We know others are thinking about this topic as well, and would welcome evaluators and practitioners to weigh in with their perspectives.

    Patty Russell (Managing Director, FSG) & Hallie Preskill (Managing Director, FSG Strategic Learning and Evaluation Practice)

  • BY Patty Russell

    ON July 22, 2014 05:17 PM

    Please excuse the typo in the comment above. The President & CEO of The David and Lucile Packard Foundation is Carol Larson.

    Patty Russell

  • BY Steven Crandell

    ON August 21, 2014 07:03 PM

    I am grateful to John Kania, Mark Kramer, and Patty Russell for their efforts in creating this essay. I believe it is important work - as much a bellwether of future trends as an analysis of where we are.  Each of the nine remarkable responses to the essay gave me a similar sense of appreciation. My thanks also to the “Stanford Social Innovation Review” for co-creating such a discussion.

    But I found it odd that in all the words about philanthropy, there was scant mention of giving.

    Might I suggest that this old-fashioned idea is at the heart of “emergent strategy.”

    For a number of years now, there’s been a great deal of attention focused on blueprints for social change and measuring impact. But philanthropy usually starts with a gift or a grant. Philanthropists, of course, also make loans and impact investments. But those, too, are inspired by beneficent intent and generous spirit.

    We speak of organizations and institutions and systems and governments, but in the end, people make the decision to give and other people make the decision to provide pro-social service to still other people in the community. That series of acts, and the relationships they represent, all create huge potential for flexible and inclusive strategy.  A philanthropist giving with good heart can inspire new collaborations, even new systems - all based on hope and faith and supported by mutual effort.

    What if we treated these core relationships not as transactions exacted to achieve a result, but as part of our philanthropy? What if helping all stakeholders - including philanthropists - reach their potential was part of the mission? We wouldn’t sweat every mistake. We would realize that achievement lies in a good direction, a stout heart, good intelligence, a flexible approach and never giving up.

    Philanthropy is the process not the product.

    Strategy – emergent or not – is a wonderful place. But none, I think, do there embrace.

    (I am also grateful to Andrew Marvel. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173954  )

    Steven Crandell
    P.S. For my own humorous/serious take on strategy please see : “A Philanthropist and a Nonprofit ED walk into a bar …”


  • BY John Kania

    ON August 28, 2014 07:27 AM

    We are grateful, in turn, for Steven Crandell’s thoughtful observations here.  Steven’s comments on the relational dimensions of philanthropy are indeed important perspectives to raise up in this dialogue.  A valued colleague recently shared with us the following quote from William O’Brien, past president of Hanover Insurance Companies who was a great systems thinker:  “The success of the intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.”  We really like this observation and see Steven’s contributions in much the same light.  We also appreciate the possibilities for new openings Steven creates through integrating art and humor into the conversation!

  • BY Steven Crandell

    ON August 28, 2014 02:37 PM

    Thanks to William O’Brien for his insight and to you, John, for sharing it. We separate our interior and exterior conditions at our peril. Can there be a more empowering “intervention” than to use our free will to choose the love we know deep within? Knowing our interior condition is, of course, a relationship in itself - and a precursor to our relationships with others. Giving is so wonderful, in part, because it can connect us with this deeper self. This is a story often overlooked in philanthropy’s quest for measurable impact in the world. The potential transformation is in the giver as well as those who benefit. Here’s another post - not so funny, sorry - about seeking transformation through information. http://stevenscottcrandell.tumblr.com/  All the best to you and your colleagues at FSG.

  • BY Daniel F. Bassill

    ON August 28, 2014 04:13 PM

    Thanks you Steven. I enjoyed reading your article.

    Web sites like the Boston Indicators Project are aggregating tons of information that people in Boston can use to solve problems. At http://www.bostonindicators.org/ they organize issues into 10 sectors.  I think other cities are beginning to create similar sites.

    Steven Crandel’s article on ttp://stevenscottcrandell.tumblr.com/ emphasizes that we need to find ways to engage people with this information. Imagine if 10 or 20% or more of the people of a city got up every day saying “what are all the things I might learn” and “what are actions, big, or small, that I might take today”  to help solve one of the major problems facing my city.

    I’ve been following some discussions on systems thinking, and on uses of concept mapping tools, that visualize the steps we need to take to get from where we are now, to where we want to go. Architects and engineers use blueprints all the time so actions are done in sequence, with the correct mix of talent needed to do the job.  As we think of “what are all the things” some of those will be tools that map steps we can take, and tools and actions that bring more people to this information on a daily basis.

    If within that there are people willing to give time, talent and dollars where it is needed, and as their own commitment to “all that needs to be done” we might come closer over a period of years to solving some of the complex problems that we keep facing.

  • I have always loved to read reviews from any Stanford stance.

    However I have read many articles on philanthropy in which I am quite involved especially in the area of destitute children, I have always seen that more and more donors are becoming more and moree avaricious.

    They will spend money on buying out shares in big Companies, purchase football/soccer clubs but are they really thinking about what is happening in the World right now.

    Children are being massacred under any excuse or misappropriate behaviour and I personally belive that everything must be refined but as said above we need strict and cintrolled parameters.

    Hoever there are many Foundations which have set their own parameters and funding after a set limit of opening and closing doors date wise which in actual fact an excellent strategy.

    I just wish to know that everyone is saying that the world is getting more and more complex. My only question is, WHO HAS MADE THIS WORLD MORE COMLEX?

    Although it is not a spiritual debate, I will never believe that it is God but only US a mere and simple mortals who have created this world as a monster which is now becoming beyond control. It is an economic war which has cast its ugly shdows over philanthropy. It is simple to understand.

    To conclude, today the rule is that the rich will become richer and the poor very unfortunately poorer.

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