Philanthropy Must Evolve

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By Katie Scolari Borden, Strategic Advisor to Improve International

Katie has more than a decade of experience in non-profit fundraising, strategy and board development. A graduate of Georgetown University Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Katie spent almost eight years at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF where she managed some of the largest corporate partnerships including GE Foundation, BD, and Johnson & Johnson. At Water For People, Katie effectively managed the transition from a small grass-roots led organization to a Skoll Award-winning leader, tripling the organization’s donations over three years. She has worked on board management and development at the regional, national and international levels. She is currently earning her Masters in Public Administration program at the University of Colorado.

spcw_webinarLRecently, Stanford Social Innovation Review Live hosted a webinar with FSG, a non-profit specializing in research, strategy, and evaluation to discuss their recent article titled “Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World.” The article presented a new approach to measuring the impact of strategic philanthropy for foundations:”To solve today’s complex social problems, foundations need to shift from the prevailing model of strategic philanthropy that attempts to predict outcomes to an emergent model that better fits the realities of creating social change in a complex world.”

On the webinar, John Kania, the Managing Director of FSG and one of the three authors of the article, presented an overview of this new “emergent strategy” and began by recognizing that the existing foundation approach requiring results within short time-lines and upfront precision undermines grant-making effectiveness. He stated that foundations must combine the strengths of existing philanthropy (clear goals, testable hypotheses, metrics of success, etc.) with emergent strategies, such as learning agendas, systems mapping, and course correction, to create a more flexible system that responds to the twists and turns of modern-day problem-solving.

Some highlights of this new approach include:

  • Foundations should co-create strategies with grantees, emphasizing inquiry over certainty, collaborative problem solving and systems thinking
  • Grants should allow room to work positive and negative attractors, in other words, the people, ideas, and resources that can’t be predicted or replicated up front
  • Grant-making should focus on strengthening the fitness of the system and relationships that create solutions, instead of trying to construct the solutions themselves

This last point is especially germane to the WASH sector, where a lot of investment still focuses on hardware and implementation, rather than institutional support, long-term capacity building or resilient markets. As Kania asserts, most foundations are change-oriented institutions that don’t address complexity well, and many of the tools used don’t fit the fluidity of social change. So there is a lot of work ahead for foundations to incorporate these ideas including changing their leadership and culture, strategy-setting frameworks and processes, and their organizational structures.

While some of the larger, well-established foundations like The Rockefeller Foundation and Ford Foundation are embracing this approach, there are thousands of others who are still working within traditional grant-making frameworks. Both Ford Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation have shifted away from a strict emphasis on metrics and outputs to focus more on goal-setting and being flexible with their strategy so that learning can happen along the way. They recognize that without this flexibility and openness, grantees are likely to hide disappointing results and opportunities for transformative learning will be lost.

Obviously, the panelists came from well-funded and sophisticated foundations that have the resources and energy to embrace this emergent model of strategic philanthropy. Many smaller foundations might struggle with making this type of transition, but such a shift is critical to making philanthropy more effective. Foundations large and small can and should have conversations with their Boards about shifting how they define success. Focusing on realistic goal-setting, giving grantees space to adjust their strategy as circumstances change, setting longer time-horizons, and insisting on documenting long-term results and learning throughout the program are just a few ways all foundations can evolve their strategies under increasingly complex conditions.

There are no quick and easy fixes to most of the problems philanthropy is trying to solve. So foundations, especially those addressing really tough problems like water and sanitation, urgently need to adapt their strategies. Otherwise, more money will go into solutions that perpetuate failure or have no lasting impact for the world’s poor.

For links to the webinar, SSIR article and presentation, visit the FSG website.

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