Three Lessons from 13 Years of Strategic Philanthropy

The complexity of social change is what makes strategic philanthropy valuable.

The Value of Strategic Planning & Evaluation The Value of Strategic Planning & Evaluation In this ongoing series of essays, practitioners, consultants, and academics explore the value of strategy and evaluation, as well as the limits and downsides of these practices.

Thirteen years ago, I encountered the many faces of a complex social issue for the first time. I was in Brazil to help with a project to balance development and conservation in the Amazon. There, I met residents of indigenous communities, rubber tappers, government technocrats, soy farmers, foreign donors, small landholders, and committed conservationists—together, they represented dozens of perspectives and interests.

I’d been invited to help because of my strategy experience, yet I’d rarely felt like such a rookie. Ask me how to maximize profit on Sony TVs or IBM computers, and I was your guy. But now I was bombarded with more objectives than I could count: land tenure, canopy cover, timber yields, threatened species, water supplies—the list went on and on.

It was an intimidating start to my personal journey toward strategic philanthropy—an evolution that, I should note, Paul Brest, curator of this series, has profoundly influenced. But the experience also taught me three important lessons that I’ve since applied to how we at Redstone Strategy Group approach our work:

1. The more complicated the issue, the greater the value of strategic philanthropy in clarifying everyone’s objectives—even if the details remain sketchy. For example, the Latin America Regional Climate Initiative’s goal is huge: It champions policies to mitigate catastrophic climate change across Mexico, Brazil, and elsewhere in the southern hemisphere. It is the hub of a network of funders and NGOs that have common objectives but distinct strategies, and it must manage a set of ongoing, simultaneous negotiations over how to reach its goal. The initiative does so through campaign plans that describe each party’s expectations, enabling the team to make day-to-day decisions swiftly in an ever-changing policy environment. It’s complicated, but it’s worth it; this strategic approach allows diverse groups to come together in pursuit of common goals.

2. Given disparate objectives, it helps to have an “honest broker” so that everyone’s interests have a voice but none dominate. There is much discussion over who should lead social sector planning—large donors, or the beneficiaries and NGOs that are facing problems and developing solutions daily. The conceptual answer seems straightforward: The entity that is closest to the issue but removed enough to have interest in attacking all parts of the problem should lead the effort.

For instance, the Forever Costa Rica conservation program guarantees the perpetual support of Costa Rica’s biodiversity by assembling commitments from the Cost Rican government, multi- and bi-lateral funders, large foundations such as the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, NGOs such as the Nature Conservancy, and individual donors around the world. Every supporter has distinct objectives, and many of these objectives conflict to some degree.

The Linden Trust for Conservation was exactly the informed but broadly interested party needed to knit together the program. While it isn’t doing the work in the trenches, it has no specific agenda beyond the goal of perpetual support and has successfully balanced on-the-ground needs to a remarkable degree.

3. Strategy will change; manage it as a portfolio that ebbs and flows with circumstance. Like many other foundations, the Helmsley Charitable Trust realized that the Common Core State Standards Initiative holds great promise for American education. But whether or not it increases college and career readiness depends on a complex interplay of forces—political pressures on policy-makers, incentives of textbook publishers, district resources, and the hopes of parents.

The trust’s grantmaking strategy clearly states how its grants can increase college and career readiness among K-12 students, including targets for outcomes and multi-year budgets. The strategy also humbly explains all the ways it could be wrong. It defines scenarios for course corrections, and establishes monitoring and evaluation to trigger them. The trust therefore invests with confidence—though it may not get it right the first time, by explicitly stating and testing its assumptions, it will get it right in time.

Social change almost always requires broad coalitions with diverse objectives. It is lovely when high-impact planning requires only the perspective of a single entity with a single goal, but that rarely happens. Instead, we need strategies that clearly articulate everyone’s goals and trusted brokers to lead the charge. With those ingredients, we can adapt thoughtfully as the world changes. The complexity of social change is no reason to abandon strategic philanthropy. In fact, it’s what makes strategic philanthropy valuable.

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