Archive for March, 2014

Zombie philanthropic ideas that won’t die #4

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

Returning to an ongoing series.

#1 is “Foundations are legally prohibited from doing advocacy.”

#2 is “There are too many nonprofits.”

#3 is “We can move the needle.”

And #4 is….

We’re going from being responsive to being strategic.”

Just as the zombie was once alive, and retains something of life’s essence, zombie ideas contain kernels of truth. But their expression in the world has become…something other.

The kernel of truth in a dichotomy of responsive and strategic grantmaking is the difference between funding whatever ideas come over the transom and naming specific outcomes you as a funder want to see achieved, and asking grantees to pursue those specific outcomes.

The problem comes when we view strategic as an honorific, and set up a dichotomy where responsive by implication becomes a pejorative. We’re “moving beyond” responsive grantmaking, doing something “more” strategic.

But as the California Wellness Foundation argued ten years ago, “Responsive Grantmaking Is Strategic.” There are several ways this can be the case:

  • Responsive grantmaking can complement the goals of “strategic” (or directed) grantmaking, providing an opportunity to learn about a particular field, or gauge responsiveness to a new idea or approach.
  • If we ask the question “whose strategy is it?” (and for this I’m grateful to Judy Patrick of the Women’s Foundation of California for framing it), then a different perspective emerges. If the answer is “the foundation’s,” then perhaps the strategic-responsive dichotomy holds. But if the answer is that the strategy belong to the grantee, or the community, or the field, or the movement – then responsive grantmaking appears in a different light. If you as a funder are bought in to a strategy larger than your individual organization’s, then perhaps the most strategic way to intentionally pursue your strategy is to sign on to the strategies that grantees and other partners develop on their own or in concert with you. Responding to others’ strategies that you endorse is the strategic choice.
  • Responsive grantmaking can be strategic if what you value as a funder is not your ability to define a problem and name a solution, but your ability to “pick winners,” to identify strong organizations with effective leaders and solid plans, and support them in executing on those plans. Often, the difference between these values is framed in dichotomous terms – but a picking-winners approach can be used in concert with a defining-problems approach. You just have to be willing to see what actors in the field you’ve chosen are up to and ask how you can help, rather than coming in with a defined solution.

Responsive grantmaking is undervalued because its benefits for learning, field-building, place-building, and reputation management aren’t well articulated or robustly defended. And strategic grantmaking is overvalued because its roots in ecosystem thinking, learning, and value judgements is similarly less understood than its intentionality or proactiveness. Viewing them dichotomously and assuming that strategic funding is better misses a lot of opportunities for impact.

How do you think about responsive and strategic grantmaking in your own work? How does this particular zombie idea, of a dichotomy between the two, play out in your world?

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Naming the Elephant in the Room

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

Here’s my post about last week’s GEO conference from the conference blog.

It’s time to start talking about funders’ internal capacity, and how that shapes their effectiveness. For too long, funders have been externally focused, without systematic attention to whether they have the skills, abilities, knowledge, and networks to pursue their missions most effectively. On one level, this comes from a good place, like when my Colombian grandmother (either of them, qepd) would be more worried about what we were eating than whether she ate. But on another level, my Colombian grandmother was really skinny – she didn’t eat enough. I’m not saying she needed to gorge, but all that selflessness wasn’t necessarily a good thing. In moderation, some attention to funder internal capacity can help funders play their various roles more effectively. And it will give them more perspective on what they’re really asking nonprofits to do when they offer capacity building.

What forms of funder capacity do you think are most important? Which funders do a good job of building their own capacity in moderation?