The Summer 2014 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review contained updated perspective on strategic philanthropy, “Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World.” Katherine Fulton’s response to the piece was published on the website alongside seven others.
Strategic philanthropy is smart but not wise. That is why so many seasoned social change leaders have voiced doubts about it, publicly and privately, since it gained prominence and adherents. Peel away the theory the authors now expound, and what you have is praiseworthy common sense. Their argument is both well articulated and overdue.
That said, knowing what to do and being able to do it are two fundamentally different things. The approach outlined here only hints at what will be required to implement it, as our work over the past decade at Monitor Institute has taught us.
Strategic philanthropy has rightly aspired to intellectual rigor about the “what” and the “why” of social change, rejecting vague claims and a reliance on good intentions. But the hard-earned wisdom of practice reveals that lasting change nearly always relies on mastery of the “how” and the “who,” regardless whether the problem is simple, complicated, or complex. The human system, therefore, is as important as the problemsystem, as John Kania, Mark Kramer, and Patty Russell acknowledge in their article. That might seem obvious, but designing an approach that honors this insight is incredibly hard to do well in any environment, and especially within the staffing and governance constraints that are typical in foundations.
Let’s take the author’s central example as a case in point: the Rockefeller Foundation impact investing initiative. As it happens, I led the Monitor Institute team that supported Antony Bugg-Levine, Judith Rodin, and others at Rockefeller as their strategy emerged, ultimately leading to the formation of the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN), where I served on the board with Antony until recently.
Any case example must be short. In this case, however, the broader narrative cloaks as much as it reveals. Here are two quick additions to illustrate what success will require:
Change cannot be controlled. It can’t be distilled into a recipe that anyone can follow. That is clearly one of the lessons of strategic philanthropy’s evolution so far. We must learn to work together in new ways to guide and cultivate change—to master sensibilities and skills that remain too rare in philanthropy today.