Data Point: Getting Input When Developing Strategies

Being “strategic” in philanthropy is sometimes equated with being isolated, arrogant, or top-down, with foundation leaders asserting detailed theories of change to rigidly guide grantmaking. But CEP’s research suggests that the opposite is the case. Those who are strategic are more likely to seek feedback from external constituents when developing strategies.

This data point comes from our December 2009 study titled Essentials of Foundation Strategy. The findings from this report are based on data collected from surveys of CEOs and program staff at private foundations with $100 million or more in assets. These leaders were then classified as either “more strategic” or “less strategic” based upon the extent to which they embody two defining elements: 1) an external orientation to their decision making, and 2) logical connections between the way they use their resources and the achievement of their goals.

Completed surveys were received from 102 CEOs and 89 program staff members, representing 155 different foundations. Respondents were asked to rate on a scale of 1 (Not at all) to 7 (To a very great extent) the extent to which they obtain input from four different external constituent groups when developing their foundation’s strategy.

The results show that more strategic leaders seek input from grantees, stakeholders, beneficiaries, and consultants when developing their strategies to a greater extent than their less strategic counterparts. Contrary to the perception that to be strategic in foundation work is to be inflexible, unresponsive, or top-down, the more strategic CEOs and program staff were in fact more likely to look outside their foundations’ walls and seek input from stakeholders.

Even for those leaders who are more strategic, though, the average rating for the extent to which they seek input on strategy development from the ultimate beneficiaries of their work falls on the lower end of the scale.

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What separates more strategic foundation leaders from less strategic ones? To read CEP research that explores the state of strategy at private foundations and identifies behaviors and practices common to more strategic leaders, see the report Essentials of Foundation Strategy written by Ellie Buteau, Ph.D., Phil Buchanan, and Andrea Brock.

Ellie Buteau is Vice President – Research at the Center for Effective Philanthropy


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