This piece is cross-posted from the Stanford Social Innovation Review Blog. It is the first in a series of posts SSIR will publish on The Value of Strategic Planning and Evaluation curated by Paul Brest, emeritus professor at Stanford Law School, Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society faculty co-director, and former president of the Hewlett Foundation. -ed.
I grew up in a deeply religious community. While the behavior of community members may have looked similar to an outsider, I found that there were, generally speaking, two kinds of people around me. I will call them the “certaintists” and the “meaning seekers.” The certaintists, as their name implies, had a great deal of certainty about their practice and beliefs, and often behaved as though they had a corner on the truth. They followed and enforced the rules of religious practice with little question, found comfort in routine and community, and were good, well-intentioned people. But their routines, I noticed, could occasionally inflict harm. Meanwhile, the meaning seekers followed the rules and established practices, but more as vehicles for finding spiritual meaning and leading a consciously just and purposeful life.
What does this have to do with strategic philanthropy? Why am I impolitely introducing the usually taboo topic of religion into the secular world of philanthropy? Don’t we usually prefer to compare philanthropy to business?
It is because during the last two decades of tremendous growth in philanthropy and the evolution of strategic philanthropy, I have noticed a trend that reminds me of the community of my childhood.
Proponents of strategic philanthropy set out to help foundations have a greater impact on the problems we care about, and positive results of strategic philanthropy are many: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for instance, has helped put obesity squarely on the map of problems facing the United States in a way that is spurring national attention for solutions. The Hewlett Foundation has made great strides in supporting the conservation of natural ecosystems of the West. The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation has led transformative efforts to help vulnerable youth by scaling proven programs. The Gill Foundation has been a major force behind the movement for marriage equality. The Gates Foundation has helped reduce incidence of malaria throughout Africa. And the list goes on.
On the systems side, we have created and reinforced tools that make philanthropy more disciplined and focused on results. These include theories of change, which force us to articulate how we think change will happen and why. We can increasingly draw on evidence in those theories; and where evidence doesn’t exist, we can better describe our assumptions. Logic models, when we do them well, are tools that can unlock the black box of magical thinking and translate those theories of change into practical plans that address critical questions: Who do we think we will reach, through what means, in what timeframe, and with what results? We have also come a long way in the last couple of decades in our efforts to rigorously evaluate philanthropic and nonprofit initiatives. And finally, it is terrific to see an increased philanthropic focus on helping nonprofits develop into healthy, high-performing organizations. Smaller strategic foundations—such as the Haas, Jr. Fund, which has successfully developed nonprofit leadership—have advanced these capacity-building efforts.
Yet along the way, strategic philanthropy seems to have evolved to a point where we have many certaintists and not enough meaning seekers.