Strategic or emergent: why are we stuck in the swimming pool?

Caroline Hartnell, Jenny Hodgson and Barry Knight

Gerry Salole, chief executive of the European Foundation Centre, once commented: ‘Philanthropy tends to get stuck in the swimming pool, when the real action is in the sea.’ The recent controversy about strategic philanthropy and the newly coined (or as it turns out not so newly coined) emergent strategic philanthropy seems to be a storm in the swimming pool. Responses to John Kania, Mark Kramer and Patty Russell’s ‘Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World’, published in the summer issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, have come largely from the US and from people who write regularly about philanthropy. Many of them have focused on the way consultants behave and how they interact with foundations and non-profits – in other words, the philanthropy system. We would like to broaden that debate and in doing so to leave the swimming pool and venture out into the sea.

In March 2014, we edited a special feature for Alliance on ‘Grantmaking for Social Change’. We see this Alliance special feature as very much part of this same debate – the debate about what is needed to bring about social change. It was triggered by a perception that grantmaking as a tool for bringing about social change had fallen out of favour, to be replaced by newer, snappier-sounding forms of philanthropy – venture philanthropy, strategic philanthropy, philanthrocapitalism and catalytic philanthropy.

Despite a wide range of contributors from many parts of the world, there was an impressive consistency running through all the articles. There were two main conclusions. First, grantmaking is central to social change (particularly in developing and emerging market contexts). Second, and most central to this debate, a wide range of different approaches and tools are necessary to produce social change in our complex world, such that no single approach – strategic, emergent or otherwise – enjoys a monopoly of method.

From strategic to emergent
Many have welcomed the admission by some of the prime architects of the strategic philanthropy approach that its rather cut-and-dried approach – clear goals, data-driven strategies, heightened accountability and rigorous evaluations – doesn’t fit the complexities of social change. FSG consultants Kania, Kramer and Russell now suggest moving away from a ‘rigid and predictive model of strategy’ to ‘emergent strategic philanthropy’.

The reason for the change, they suggest, is that strategic philanthropy doesn’t work for complex problems because you can’t spot the necessary causative links leading to social change and therefore you can’t plan for them. Strategic philanthropy works fine for simple problems (building a hospital) and for complicated problems (developing a vaccine) but not for complex problems (improving the health of a particular group in the population) because you can’t see the links in the chain.

Emergent strategies take into account that initial hypotheses will have to be modified as they come into contact with circumstances. They still require that a clear strategic intent should guide the funder’s actions, but there is also a willingness to acknowledge that specific outcomes cannot be predicted. Using the Rockefeller Foundation’s catalysing of impact investing as its key example, the article adduces three main characteristics:

•    co-creating the strategy (getting important players involved);
•    amplifying positive attractors (attractors are sources of convergence within a system – like planets in a solar system) and reducing negative ones (things that move the system away from desired outcomes – like black holes);
•    and improving system fitness (developing the ecosystem, or encouraging those factors that are conducive to the change they want to see).

Shifting from a predictive to an emergent model of strategic philanthropy involves becoming an organization that listens and ‘senses’ (one of the article’s buzzwords) and is willing to learn. On this model, it is important to see organizational strategy as a compass rather than a map.

Responses to the article
There have been a number of other responses to the article, some of them commissioned by SSIR, the majority of them critical. Several question the very notion of a simple problem. Christine Letts, for example, points out that ‘Traditional strategic philanthropy doesn’t always work for what the authors call “simple” or “complicated” problems’. Kenneth Prewett ‘winced’ because the article had to be written at all, and expressed relief that in the end it recommends ‘a strong dose of common sense and good judgment’.

William Schambra of the Hudson Institute, in an article in Nonprofit Quarterly, draws attention to the plight of non-profits that have invested resources, at their funders’ behest, in becoming ‘strategic’, and now feel that work might have been wasted. He is critical of the fact that this apparent volte-face by some of the people who pioneered strategic philanthropy in the first place is not sufficiently acknowledged.

Phil Buchanan of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, writing on their blog, takes FSG to task for failing to acknowledge previous writings on emergent philanthropy.

Widening the debate
In order to widen the debate from its rather North American base, we decided to go back to the contributors to the March issue of Alliance. We asked them to respond to four questions:

•    Are you aware of the debates?
•    Do the issues resonate with you?
•    Have you invested time and effort in becoming more strategic? Do you see this as wasted?
•    Will the current debates in any way change your approach to how you do your work? Or how you expect your grantees to work?

While some were very aware of the debate and some not at all, several clear threads emerge from the responses – some of which have been published on the Alliance blog:

•    The article told them little that was new because they were already practising what it describes as ‘emergent philanthropy’ – though they see it more as a common sense response to the complexity in which they work.
•    There is no such thing as a simple problem when you take context into account.
•    This debate will be less relevant in some contexts than others, but reflection on how philanthropy is practised is always valuable.

What’s new: emergent philanthropy is what we do
‘To me this is COMMON SENSE philanthropy. Oak Foundation did not need outside experts to tell us this,’ writes Oak Foundation president Kathleen Cravero. ‘We always thought that being strategic meant being open, collaborative and aware of the big picture. We never bought into metric-driven, treat-it-like-a-business, solve-it-like-a-math-problem approaches to philanthropy.’

‘We certainly spend a lot of time, all year long thinking over our strategy, so that we remain always as focused as possible in order to reach the objectives that have been set,’ says Jacqueline Delia Bremond of Fondation Ensemble. ‘But our strategy is a very flexible one, constantly adjusted because we are dealing with human matters which are, of their essence, in permanent evolution.’

‘This debate made me realize that we do apply most of the practices suggested by Kramer and his colleagues in their article,’ writes Rana Kotan of Sabanci Foundation in Turkey. ‘We probably apply a mixed method of the strategic and the emergent approach.’

‘Our strategies were always realistic about complex circumstances, insecure living conditions, multiple problems within the legal system, post-war damages, the social problems of economic development, closed factories and private businesses, etc,’ writes Jasna Jašarević of Bosnia’s Tuzla Community Foundation.

For those working in post-conflict countries, being open and flexible is a matter of survival. ‘The contested and violently unsettled conditions of Northern Ireland are a sharp lesson in keeping the head down, the ear to the ground and a weather eye on what might be coming down the tracks,’ writes Avila Kilmurray, until recently director of Community Foundation of Northern Ireland. ‘We didn’t have to be told to “sense the environment” – or as we termed it “keep a finger on the pulse” – we had to do it to survive.’

This is echoed by Ambika Satkunanathan of Sri Lanka’s Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust: ‘Foundations working in post-war contexts that continue to be plagued by identity conflicts have no option but to adopt an emergent strategy in order to be effective, and more importantly to ensure organizational survival in a hostile and rapidly changing environment … Mark Speich’s comment that “human interaction is unpredictable” is nowhere more applicable than in Sri Lanka, which is why “sensing the environment” and “sensing and leveraging opportunities” have to become second nature to organizations working here.’

There is no such thing as a simple problem
‘What if you are building a public hospital in a neighbourhood that doesn’t want it?’ asks Kathleen Cravero – a scenario that Ambika Satkunanathan elaborates on. ‘Even formulating solutions to problems the authors categorize as “simple”, such as building a hospital, can become arduous, perilous tasks, depending on the location of the hospital and the population it serves,’ she writes.

‘If communities are divided along ethnic or religious lines, the construction could lead to conflict over resources or allegations that the donor funding the project is conspiring to cause conflict between two different groups by favouring one over the other.’

How relevant is the debate?
‘These concepts of strategic philanthropy, like many others that build up a typology of philanthropy, do not have the same weight in Brazil – and I’d say in Latin America in general,’ says Andre Degenszajn of GIFE, Brazil’s grantmakers’ association. However, he sees the shift to emergent philanthropy as ‘a positive shift’: ‘It seems to take a whole different approach [from catalytic philanthropy], recognizing that no single actor holds the answer to complex problems and the need to mobilize resources within a system of diverse organizations – implying a much more horizontal perspective’ – though he confesses himself ‘confused by the lack of reference to their previous ideas, pushed forward so confidently’.

Filiz Bikmen, a social investment and philanthropy adviser based in Turkey, sees ‘continuous reflection on various approaches and learning from actual practice’ as vital, and warns: ‘We must be careful when questioning the motives (advertising, promotion etc) of such discussions, or we risk organizations becoming less willing to share their experiences, which then limits our ability to learn from others.’

But for her the main value of the debate is ‘to spark and fuel more of our own local/domestic debates about experiences and practices of philanthropy. Discussions in Turkey are certainly more prominent than they were say 10-15 years ago,’ she says, ‘but we could do more to promote further sharing and learning. Philanthropy has a long history in Turkey, and we have yet to even fully examine and understand the past. While modern-day practice is certainly changing to reflect new needs in society, we need to be more actively discussing past, present and possible future trends and scenarios for philanthropy in our part of the world.’

A final word from Gaza
While Nick Perks of Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust welcomes ‘the limits of command and control approaches being highlighted’ and emphasizes the value of responsive grant-making as ‘one way to keep nimble to the emergent needs and opportunities around complex challenges that society faces’, the last word on who sets the philanthropy agenda must come from Nora Murad, founder of Dalia, ‘running and crying’ through stricken Gaza – who is in the sea rather than the swimming pool if anyone is:

‘While I understand the logic of being strategic from an organizational point of view, when it comes to helping others, it is not the giver’s (I hate that word) organizational strategy that should guide, but the recipient’s (I hate that word). Strategic philanthopy CAN be out of sync with local leadership/priorities/rights/control, and it is the latter that should guide more than the strategy of some organization in Oslo or Brussels. What’s happening with all this business talk infiltrating philanthropy is that giving becomes another way to influence others rather than a real way to support others. It’s as if the businesses are doing self-interested business with their philanthropy dollars and calling it “help” – when the only arbiter of what constitutes “help” should be the “helpee”.’

Jenny Hodgson is executive director of the Global Fund for Community Foundations. Email
Barry Knight is secretary of CENTRIS. Email
Caroline Hartnell is editor of Alliance. Email

You might also like to see a further comment on this debate from Daniel Overall and Michele Fugiel Gartner at the Trico Charitable Foundation  and a response to the whole blog series from the authors of ‘Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World’, John Kania, Mark Kramer and Patty Russell of FSG.

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