Philanthropy End of Summer Beach Reading: Part 1

It’s nearing the end of August but it’s been anything but quiet when it comes to pieces about nonprofits and philanthropy. A few particularly thought-provoking pieces have been released in recent days, many of which my colleague Stephen Sullivan touches on in his recent round-up.

For sheer fun, I especially enjoyed the exchanges on philanthropic strategy between the Hudson Institute’s Bill Schambra and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s former and current presidents, Paul Brest and Larry Kramer. If you haven’t read Schambra’s talk delivered at Hewlett and published by Nonprofit Quarterly, and Brest and Kramer’s responses, I highly recommend them.

No surprise that we here at CEP are in the Paul Brest and Larry Kramer camps on this one, given that we have long-pushed for a strategic approach to philanthropy. But Schambra’s is an important voice, and his ideas deserve the debate that they tend to generate.

Among my issues with Schambra’s take on strategy is that he defines it quite differently than I do. Good strategy need not be top-down, isolated from community perspectives or voices on the ground. Indeed, I would argue that it cannot be!

My view is that what Schambra takes issue with is not strategy but bad strategy. (In fact, as I argued when I participated in a debate on strategy in philanthropy with Schambra in front of Chicago-area funders a number of years ago, Schambra himself has been a practitioner of pretty effective foundation strategy. Schambra served as director of programs at the Bradley Foundation—which, among other things, pursued a strategy of expanding charter schools and vouchers that, regardless of whether you agree with it, is generally seen to have been rather effective in achieving its goals.)

As we at CEP have pointed out time and time again, good foundation strategy is informed by relevant players, including beneficiaries, and is iterated in response to changing contexts and circumstances. As Aaron Dorfman of NCRP and I argued in a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy piece, there is no inherent tension between ground up, community-based work and strategy. Unlike in business, where you want strategy to be yours alone, for foundations, that is a recipe for failure.

So I especially appreciated these words from Hewlett’s Kramer:

“It takes no great insight to realize that the strategic approach to philanthropy can, like any and every other approach, be done poorly. But it can also be done well. Which is why, as someone still relatively new to the world of philanthropy, I find Bill’s speech ultimately un-illuminating. He paints with far too broad a brush. … In the end, however, Bill is not opposed to expertise. He merely favors one kind of expertise, based on local knowledge and experience, over another, based on broader study and more systematic analysis of data.

It is undoubtedly true that one can misstep, and badly, by approaching problems in an overly abstract manner, without paying attention to local knowledge and circumstances. But one can also misstep, and just as badly, by relying on the unsystematic anecdotal experience of local participants. A sensible approach relies on both: drawing on systematized knowledge acquired by trained professionals as well as local experience and beliefs, using each to test and inform the other. An across-the-board rejection of the social sciences is just plain foolishness, precisely the kind of overconfidence and arrogance Bill rightly urges us to avoid, and hardly likely to solve anyone’s problems.”

I could not agree more.

(Disclosure: Hewlett is both a major grant funder of CEP and a client.)

 

Phil Buchanan is President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy and a regular columnist for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. You can find him on Twitter @philCEP.

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