I winced as I read John Kania, Mark Kramer, and Patty Russell’s article, winced because it had to be written at all, and because it replaced jargon with more jargon. In fact, they sensibly recommend a strong dose of common sense and good judgment—common sense about how a complex world works and good judgment in fashioning philanthropy alert to those complexities.

Philanthropy is activated by market failure or by government failure. If the market produced the private goods and services society needs, philanthropy would not have much to add. If government provided public goods efficiently and effectively, philanthropy would have even less to do. But we don’t live in a world that has banished market failure and government failure, so philanthropy has much to do. In dealing with the complexities of market or government failure, simple solutions—build a hospital, say—will be insufficient. Instead philanthropy will be swimming in conditions in which multiple intertwined forces are in play and where the unpredicted occurs as often as the predicted does. These are not conditions that invite the latest in performance metrics.

I illustrate with a common claim by foundations, though one, thankfully, not repeated in the Kania, Kramer, and Russell essay. Of all the silly things that foundations assert, perhaps the silliest is “we are risk takers.” Quite the opposite. Effective foundations eliminate risk. Nearly a century ago the Spellman Rockefeller Memorial realized that the country needed greater social science capacity. It went down one road (research grants) only to discover that something critical was missing (doctoral training). But adding that program element just turned up other gaps (European colleagues or interdisciplinary opportunities), and it invested accordingly. When institutional infrastructure was lacking, it created the Social Science Research Council; where policy applicability was called for, yet other institutions—Brookings and the National Bureau of Economic Research—were added. It was an early example of how common sense philanthropy took risk out of the equation by supplying missing elements not initially envisioned. Of course Spellman was not the only player. Converting social science into productive advice to the government required an active National Research Council in Washington, D.C., and it became part of the landscape. The Carnegie Corp created TIAA-CREF, which allowed for faculty mobility (retirement benefits traveled with them)—indispensable for establishing strong research clusters that in turn built what we now recognize as the great research universities.

It’s OK to call this “emergent philanthropy” and present it as something new, but in fact foundation history is littered with successful examples of removing risk from the equation by refashioning grant strategies when unanticipated connections—constructive as well as obstructive—come into view. Foundation officers cannot be smart enough to anticipate everything, and they need not be embarrassed about that. They should be embarrassed if fixed targets and pre-determined performance metrics get in the way of commonsense adjustments. The authors praise intuitive understanding. I winced not in disagreement but because the authors and editors must believe that the obvious nevertheless need be said—that something so basic as intuitive understanding has to be paraded.

Which Is It, the Blue-Plate Special or Plate Tectonics?

Maybe it is time to revisit the root cause metaphor, as a way to see “strategic philanthropy” from a different angle. Imagine: There is a devastating earthquake in San Francisco, killing many and leaving thousands hungry and cold. It is obvious that the root cause of the suffering is lack of nourishment and shelter, so the blue-plate special philanthropic response rushes in food and tents. But what if San Francisco had failed to learn from its own history and hadn’t stockpiled disaster supplies. Now the root cause shifts to poor preparation by city officials; improved disaster planning is the philanthropic task. But then, was not the real problem that buildings collapsed? Here the root cause becomes poor engineering and regulatory failure, and the philanthropic project would see to it that building codes were state of the art and enforced. Of course, what would have saved lives and reduced suffering would be a 24-hour warning and rapid evacuation. The root cause is, after all, seismic activity. Can plate tectonic research, someday, predict earthquakes a day before they hit?

Along a continuum that stretches from relief to research, the foundation has to find its comfort zone. It has to make a strategic decision! One zone is not better than another—immediate relief matters, immensely, to people who are hungry and cold; plate tectonic research is an uncertain bet on a huge payoff. A case can be made for either, or any of the stops in between. What doesn’t work is lack of clarity, or the sudden shift of funds for seismology to food delivery. That I call non-strategic philanthropy.

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