In the 1980s, strategic planning was a novel concept in the nonprofit sector. Typically, a facilitator designed a retreat, helped folks in the room have a conversation, and documented what they came up with. Flip charts and grape-scented markers were the 80’s version of high-tech planning tools. Foundations, if they had plans, didn’t share them; mostly they had issue areas and guidelines for grantseekers (who were expected to have plans). The logic model was slowly growing in popularity among nonprofits and foundations. The lingo was inputs, outputs, and outcomes; the data were quantitative and qualitative; and the approaches were formative and summative.
Then came the 90s—a time of tremendous wealth creation and growth in philanthropy. For good or ill, the concepts of competitive positioning, entrepreneurship, and venture capital were ported over from business, along with energetic, living donors who questioned the traditional practices of philanthropy. We also saw the rise of organizational effectiveness, with funders increasingly providing resources to help grantees build strong organizations. No surprise, all this affected the supply of services, catalyzing the birth of consulting firms dedicated to helping the mission-driven organization with strategy, evaluation, and everything in-between. These experts-for-hire changed the game.
Toward the end of the decade, newly minted philanthropy infrastructure organizations turned the lens on the funder: Don’t foundations need to be effective too? Doesn’t the effectiveness of the funder affect the success of the grantee? Strategic philanthropy took flight. A drive for focus, niche, brand equity, and impact among the growing number of foundations that self-identified as “strategic” turned up the heat on evaluation too, and there was a scramble. There were efforts to define and measure social return on investment (SROI). Utilization-focused evaluation, a concept and practice pioneered by Michael Quinn Patton, gained special resonance in philanthropy, which was beginning to demand more than a report card after the end of a program or an initiative. New conversations sprouted up about attribution versus contribution, and improving rather than proving, as we wrestled with the frequent mismatch between what we were trying to accomplish and the measurement tools at hand.
The first decade of the new millennium had its own breakthroughs. Strategy again flexed to embrace the concepts and new tools of scenario planning, systems theory, and human-centered design, as leading thinkers and practitioners pushed to address the complexity and intractability of problems, and the dynamism of the times. Evaluation again worked to keep pace.
Today, evaluation is sometimes developmental or even real-time. There are passionate proponents of participatory evaluation and beneficiary voice, as well as those committed to the quasi-experimental design of the randomized control trial. And there are those who appreciate the whole buffet and look for the right tool for the job, understanding that evaluation may not have it all but that it can serve different needs. We even have a Center on Innovation in Evaluation, and big data is on our lips and in our pockets, along with our iPhones.
Forgive the oversimplifications (and historical anomalies) of this brief tour. There is much more to this story, but the point is that our language, tools, processes, and practices—in fact, the very profession of philanthropy—have evolved steadily and dramatically. The field is maturing even as wicked problems become both more intractable (by the oleo of pressures on natural resources, the ineffectiveness of institutions founded for different times, and fragmentation of efforts) and more solvable, because of new actors, new models, and the ubiquity and affordability of powerful tools and technologies.
In my view, the dynamic duo of strategy and evaluation belong very close to the heart of our journey onward.
The current debate about the value of strategic philanthropy is healthy. In fact, “strategic” is now such a ubiquitous term for describing anything good or worth doing that it nearly lost meaning and needs rescuing. But calling something strategic doesn’t make it so.
Strategy isn’t strategy...
When it’s fixed. A good strategy is much more than a map or compass. Those tools orient you in only two dimensions against fixed landmarks. Strategy requires more. We need a suite of tools more like gyroscopes, sextants, and barometers to help us steer through the uncertain future. In the words of Rosabeth Moss Kantor, “Strategy is a lot like improvisation—setting themes, destinations, directions, and then improvising around those themes.” Our tools and experts need to help us do that.
When it’s insulated. The actions and investments of others affect our work daily. Targets are shifting constantly, and the drive to make sense of things can lead to oversimplification. Context is (nearly) everything when it comes to strategy, meaning strategy needs to consider the facts. If we don’t marry evaluation and strategy, both are underpowered, and a rational way forward can quickly turn into mere rationalization.
When it doesn’t consider people. It may be comforting to plan the work and work the plan, but that approach just isn’t realistic. Strategy needs to help us think and act flexibly to achieve a goal. Plans or models, however elegant, will always stand or fall against the human system, and organizations are nothing more or less than collections of people who are more or less resistant to change. The best strategies are well researched, clearly and crisply communicated, focused, and elegant; they aspire, and they inspire. But organizations and communities are messy. Strategy and evaluation are means to a greater end. Real leaders use them to galvanize collective action, and guide learning and adaptation.
When it’s old, hidden, or boring. Things get old really, really fast in our networked and technological world. Five- or even three-year plans are almost quaint these days. Tome-like documents may seem serious, but they are rarely alive, inspiring, or truly influential. When a strategy is current, compelling, and shared, others can understand it. Other organizations can consider our work as they make their own plans, and vice versa. We don’t have to go all the way down the path to collaboration to get some reciprocal benefits across diverse efforts. And that would be strategic.
When we are too attached to it. In 1996, during my first months as a program officer for management assistance at the Packard Foundation, I went to visit John Gardner, founder of Independent Sector and former head of the Carnegie Corporation. I was sobered by my new responsibilities and craved some wisdom. I went to the right place. He told me that he was concerned about a trend he was seeing in philanthropy, which put too much weight on the ideas of foundation staff, and said, “Philanthropy is the only source of truly flexible capital for the social good.” He went on to say that he thought the most important thing he did in his days at Carnegie was to listen to and support good ideas from the field. He was strategic, but he also understood the danger of falling too much in love with one’s own ideas.
Creating the Future
I am both a proponent and a practitioner of strategy and evaluation. I’m also an optimist. (Pessimism is, after all, the quintessential short-term strategy.) Here are three of my predictions (or rather, aspirations) for the next chapter in the unfolding story strategy and evaluation:
Strategy will be put in its place as we continue to refine our thinking and practice. We will still be able to practice it well or poorly, but the current debate will knock it off its pedestal. When we look strategy (and evaluation) in the eye, we will see a useful and evolving suite of tools—no more, no less. Practiced well, and in tandem, they will continue to be powerful aids for decision-making but never substitutes for judgment.
We simply won’t settle for blunt instruments. Nonprofit leaders, philanthropists, and consultants will continue to demand and invent better tools and practices in strategy and evaluation, and will routinely share the results of our experiments with new tools and approaches so that we accelerate the progress of the whole sector.
We will cultivate smart followership in our approach to strategy and evaluation, and it will help counter the last two decades of drive to find a niche, lead, differentiate, and build a brand. We are none of us solo actors; that thinking has run its course. We need to aggregate more than data. We need to get together in the interests of making big changes that matter. And we will.