As strategy consultants to funders and nonprofits, at TCC Group we’ve increasingly seen our funder clients struggle with how directive to be in their approach to strategy, and observed a growing backlash in the philanthropic and mainstream presses about “strategic giving.” The timeliness of this issue was evident as an overflow crowd crammed into a meeting room this week during the Council’s annual conference to discuss “Philanthropic Strategy: Too Much of a Good Thing?”
Two propositions framed the discussion. Participants were asked to indicate which of the following they were more inclined to agree with:
- OR -
About two-thirds of the audience voted for the first proposition, and one-third for the second. Clearly, the question of who owns the solutions to the social problems on which foundations work is a contested topic.
Three stellar panelists kicked off the discussion, which I had the privilege of moderating. Fatima Angeles, director of evaluation and learning at The California Wellness Foundation (CWF), described how her institution transformed its approach to strategy from initiative-driven to entirely responsive. As documented in its evaluation reports, both the CWF’s vision and results show that responsive grantmaking can be strategic. Denise McGregor Armbrister, senior vice president and executive director of the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation, talked about how her organization went from not having a strategy to developing an approach that makes grants to local communities to support the crafting and implementation of plans for advancing community development. And Jacob Harold, program officer in the philanthropy program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, argued that all successful social change is both top-down and bottom-up, but still requires the coherence and centralization of collective shared strategy.
Several takeaways and questions for further discussion emerged from the panel:
At TCC Group, our work helping funders plan, implement, and evaluate strategies resonates with this last point. There are multiple levels on which effective strategy operates—guiding an individual program, defining success for an organization, articulating goals around which a community can mobilize, and setting aspirations for how to move a sector forward. Funders should be aware of and intentional about how they have or contribute to all of these levels of strategy.
Ultimately, how much disagreement is there on the point of whether philanthropic strategy is too much of a good thing? As one tweet during the session pointed out, the panelists all praised strategy. But it’s one thing to be in favor of a coherent decision-making framework guided by clarity about outcomes and priorities for allocating resources. On that level, we can all agree that more strategy is good. But it’s on the questions of accountability to communities and who develops the strategy that disagreement continues in the field. What’s your take?
Chris Cardona is associate director of philanthropic services for TCC Group