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


Alliance magazine


Caroline Hartnell

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).

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