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