The Sabanci Foundation’s approach: a response to ‘Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World’


Sabanci Foundation

Rana Kotan

Rana Kotan

This is the fourth in our series of responses by contributors to the March issue of Alliance to John Kania, Mark Kramer and Patty Russell’s ‘Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World’. We will be publishing these articles throughout this week – starting with Kathleen Cravero’son Tuesday, Avila Kilmurray’s on Wednesday, and Ambika Satkunanathan’s yesterday. Next week we will publish an article drawing all the threads together. On Monday we published a response from Angela Kail of NPC.

Are you aware of the debates?

Yes, I was aware of the recent article by Mark Kramer and his colleagues, but I wasn’t following the debate very closely.

Do the issues resonate with you?

Most of the ideas mentioned in the article resonate with me.Strategic philanthropy has indeed lots of shortcomings and I want to give credit to the authors for challenging the current practices and suggesting new approaches for grantmaking. Some of their suggestions are arguable, but I believe this debate will help us to take philanthropy one step further.

Mark Kramer and his colleagues suggest that foundations adopt a more collaborative, flexible and intuitive approach, as opposed to the rigid, cause and effect based approach applied by major foundations, especially in the US. I agree with that.

At the Sabanci Foundation, we do not apply strategic philanthropy in a rigid way. As I’m sure many foundations do, we collect feedback regarding our grant projects and try to make the necessary adaptations while the implementation continues. Learning and adaptation are necessary regardless of the nature of the problem. Yet, I believe this is nothing new and all grantmakers who aspire to create social change apply this flexibility in one way or the other.

During our gender trainings for high school teachers last year, the module on LGBT prompted a heated debate and created huge resistance among some of the conservative teachers. Because of this module, the entire training was a failure for some teachers. In this year’s training, therefore, we changed the name of the module to ‘discussing difficult topics’ and amended the content so that the concepts explained were easier to comprehend and accept. There is no linear causality relationship between training and change in attitude, since different factors intervene, including family, education, character and beliefs of the teachers. But by identifying and eliminating the negative attractor, as Kramer and his colleagues call it, the success rate can be improved. This can be applied even to a simple case like this one.

Have you invested time and effort in becoming more strategic? Do you see this as wasted?

At the Sabanci Foundation, we don’t apply a rigid ‘predict and prove’ model, instead we empower grantees. While doing that, we use lots of intuition and adaptation, and use different tools to catalyse social change:

  • Bringing difficult social issues to the agenda of the public, government and the media, creating awareness and making sure these topics are being discussed.
  • Helping disadvantaged groups (especially people with disabilities) raise their voices to claim their rights.
  • Developing the capacity of the civil sector so that social problems can be addressed and democracy advanced.
  • Mobilizing different authorities within the government and the public sector to support and complement our grantmaking.

Sometimes we see the need to redefine the success of our grant or modify the initial hypothesis. For example, we have been supporting the disabled women’s movement for three years. We initially predicted that training and empowering disabled women would help them get formally organized and fight for their rights in a more sophisticated way. However, we didn’t achieve this goal completely. We were able to reach women with different disabilities in different provinces. Since most of them are unemployed and stay at home, getting them out of their homes should be considered a success itself. Therefore, we needed to change our predictions along the way, in order not to miss the small successes/changes that the project creates.

While the feminist movement and the disability movement were born at least two decades ago and have achieved significant milestones, disabled women could not get their voices heard in either of these movements. Even if the desired outcome is still missing, we as Sabanci Foundation are proud to support the creation of this new movement, which will grow slowly but surely into the future.

Will the current debates in any way change your approach to how you do your work? Or how you expect your grantees to work?

We apply two different approaches in our philanthropy. One is grantmaking, the other one is a longer term programme designed in partnership with the UN. Turkey still lags behind most countries in terms of gender equality. Based on the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report 2013, Turkey ranks 120th out of 136 countries. We are fully aware that one foundation alone cannot create progress on complex social issues such as this, so we co-created this programme to tackle it. It is a multi-year programme involving different stakeholders, including government authorities, ministries, municipalities, UN agencies, NGOs, academics, high school teachers and women living in communities.

This debate made me realize that we do apply most of the practices suggested by Kramer and his colleagues in their article. We probably apply a mixed method of the strategic and the emergent approach. One thing I have become aware of is that we may need to think about improving system fitness a little bit more. The article talks about the importance of ‘relational trust’. Going forward, we may spend more time in nurturing the relationships between different stakeholders involved in our projects.

Rana Kotan is director of programmes and international relations at Sabanci Foundation, Turkey.

Tagged in: Strategic Philanthropy Turkey

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