Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Emergent Strategic Philanthropy? A Philanthropy Approach Adaptable for Any Size Nonprofit

The philosophy behind strategic philanthropy is that by implementing important core principles - commit to clear goals, data-driven strategies, heightened accountability, and rigorous evaluations –there will be more successful outcomes.  Sounds good.  This is the approach that has been adopted by many foundations and individual philanthropists who have been advised on how to approach philanthropy.
But new ideas emerge…….

A new article on this subject in the Stanford Social Innovation Review recognizes that this is a complex world and a more-nuanced strategic model is needed.  The article distinguishes between straightforward projects such as building a hospital or running an after school program and projects meant to get at the root cause of a problem.  The latter being considered complex.
This is where I parted company with the authors of this article.  In my opinion, all problems that are intertwined with the human condition are complex.  The issues dealt with in after school problems can frequently be complex.  Or sometimes getting to a simple root cause like a child needing glasses can make a big difference.  The concepts of this emergent strategy model can apply to a wide range of situations and that foundations and private philanthropists should be more flexible in the parameters they set for nonprofits.

This model can work for many nonprofit programs. And there is no need to throw the baby out with the bath water.  The current strategic model is the base that it is built on.  Nonprofits start out with goals and develop strategies and programs to achieve those goals.  Through assessments and evaluations they frequently learn that they need to make adjustments.  This should not be seen as failure to meet goals but rather “unrealized strategies” exiting and “emergent strategies” entering.  This happens every day.  Rather than the linear model often purported by logic models this more flexible approach is more akin to the model used in business and industry for years – it is the model of continuous improvement.  That’s all it is – it doesn’t have to be sophisticated, complex, philosophical or whatever big word you like.  It is simple and used every day in business and industry.

I love this line in the SSIR article – “Emergence is where rigor and flexibility meet.”  The article goes on to say, “ Emergent strategy still requires that a clear strategic intent guide the funder’s actions, but it acknowledges that specific outcomes cannot be predicted. Emergent strategic philanthropists will continually strive to react to changing circumstances, so flexible and textured frameworks such as system maps must replace the linear and one-dimensional logic model as the primary means of clarifying strategy. 

I’m sure some of you are thinking so “system maps” will replace logic models.  Yes, no matter what the model, accountability is here to stay.  And there needs to be a framework for accountability.  System maps it will be.

John Cawley at the McConnell Family Foundation (Canada) describes this as having a compass rather than a map.   “A map assumes that you’re going over terrain that somebody has been over before. A compass, on the other hand, keeps one oriented toward the ultimate goal regardless of the unanticipated obstacles and detours that may appear during the journey.

Reference:  Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World” by John Kania, Mark Kramer, & Patty Russell   Stanford Social Innovation Review, Summer 2014  http://www.ssireview.org/up_for_debate/article/strategic_philanthropy