This is COMMON SENSE philanthropy: a response to ‘Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World’


Oak Foundation

Kathleen Cravero

Kathleen Cravero

In a recent article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review entitled ‘Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World’, John Kania, Mark Kramer and Patty Russell suggest moving away from a ‘rigid and predictive model of strategy’ to ‘emergent strategic philanthropy’. While strategic philanthropy works fine for simple problems (building a hospital – is this really a simple problem?) and for complicated problems (developing a vaccine), it 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. Responses to the article have come largely from the US and from people who write regularly about philanthropy. In order to broaden the debate, Alliance went back to the contributors to the March issue of Alliance, which focused on ‘Grantmaking for Social Change’, and 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?

We will be publishing some of their responses throughout this week – starting with Kathleen Cravero’s, below. Next week we will publish an article drawing all the threads together. Yesterday we published a response from Angela Kail of NPC.

Are you aware of these debates?

Yes, I read everything I see on these issues. I find it both frustrating and entertaining.

Do the issues resonate with you?

I guess the best description for what I feel when I read this stuff is: ‘Seriously? This merits a whole debate – articles in top journals?’ Why do I say that? Here is what I get out of the SSIR article:

  • Some problems are more complex than others.
  • The more complex the problem, the harder it is to solve.
  • Issues/problems evolve in bigger environments or systems. How they are solved – and whether and how fast they can be solved – depends in large part on the functioning of the system as a whole. In other words, problems cannot be solved in isolation.
  • To solve complex problems, one has to understand these systems, including the main actors, trends and operational principles within them.
  • Systems – and the complex problems they generate – do not unfold or function in a predictable way. To solve them one has to be flexible, alert to change and ready to shift approaches as the situation demands.
  • Even very rich people/organizations can’t solve problems alone. Coalitions of the like-minded need to be built; there needs to be trust within these coalitions, with all members having the chance to ‘own’ and influence the strategies.

Okay – to me this is COMMON SENSE philanthropy. Oak Foundation did not need outside experts to tell us this.

One more thing: I am not sure that problems can so be so neatly categorized into simple, complicated and complex. The bricks and mortar of a hospital are simple – but what about the complexity of building a public hospital in a neighbourhood that doesn’t want it? That becomes a complicated – or even a complex – problem, right?

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

No, because 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.

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

It is never a waste of time to think about what one is doing and why one is doing it. As the saying goes: ‘If you don’t know where you are going, any road will do …’ On the other hand, it is a waste of time to chase after every new term that pops up. It is usually old wine in new bottles.

Kathleen Cravero is president of the Oak Foundation.

Tagged in: Grantmaking oak Foundation Strategic Philanthropy

Comments (2)

Clark McCain

I'm reading Peter F. Drucker's book, Innovation and Entrepreneurship for a conference the foundation for which I work is funding in our entrepreneurship education program. Drucker was a leader in the application of organized management principles to businesses. Businesses did not always function in this way. This entire debate, to me, revolves around the degree to which foundation leaders want to adopt organization and management principles as part of their foundation's practices. The form and complexity of strategic planning relates to management practices. Again, not "business practices", but "management practices." There are fewer incentives to applying management practices in foundation settings than in business settings so the adoption rate is much lower.

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