Thoughts on the state of strategy in foundations


Timothy Ogden


Tim Ogden

Tim Ogden

[Note from Alliance: Tim Ogden and Laura Starita of Philanthropy Action have been blogging from the Council on Foundations conference in Philadelphia, which finished yesterday. Our thanks to Philanthropy Action for allowing us to re-publish a number of their posts in Latest from Alliance. To read more, go to]

One of the first sessions at the Council on Foundations conference was the somewhat mistitled Philanthropic Strategy –Too Much of a Good Thing? The session was put together by Chris Cardona of the TCC Group, a consultancy that helps foundations and non-profits with strategy among other things. I say the session was somewhat mistitled because none of the speakers made anything like an argument that there was ‘too much’ strategy happening in foundations – all were very pro-strategy. As a result there wasn’t a great deal of debate but there were some interesting points made:

  • Jacob Harold of the Hewlett Foundation noted that many of the complaints about foundation strategy in the non-profit world are really complaints about foundations being jerks, disrespectful and arrogant. A quick illustration came from Fatima Angeles of the California Wellness Foundation who related a story about overhearing a non-profit CEO complain that her foundation was ‘not strategic’, while Hewlett Foundation was, ‘too strategic’—in both cases because the foundations had turned down a grant application. All agreed that foundations needed to work on ‘not being jerks’.
  • There is still far too little foundation strategy happening. It was just a few years ago that the Center for Effective Philanthropy put out its excellent investigation into foundations’ use of strategy and found the field sorely lacking – even those foundations that described themselves as strategic couldn’t produce anything that met a very broad definition of strategy. That’s still the case based on a comment made at a later session where a presenter from FSG noted that most foundations they surveyed could not accurately describe how much they were spending (in money or people) on evaluation.
  • Someone from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy asked a question about how accountable foundations are in their formation and implementation of strategy yielding this rare gem of truth-telling from Jacob Harold: ‘Foundations are the most unaccountable institutions in America today.’ Harold went on to say that he doesn’t believe a fully ‘democratic’ approach to forming strategy would be very effective, but it was incumbent on foundations to be as transparent as possible about their strategies and their strategy process.

That spurred me to wonder: Would a fundamentally democratic approach to foundation philanthropy – where strategy and grantmaking was essentially outsourced to communities – truly be worse than the oligarchic model that currently dominates? I’m by no means a populist and I think what we’ve seen of contest/voting philanthropy over the last few years says, ‘Yes, it would be worse.’ But I don’t think the answer is actually all that clear. Worth pondering, and I’m certainly interested in others’ thoughts.

First published on 11 April 2011 at

Tagged in: Council on Foundations Philanthropy Action USA

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