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The Problem of Strategic Philanthropy (According to Bill Schambra)

William A. Schambra

Editor’s Note: Below you will find a speech on the shortcomings of strategic philanthropy given last Wednesday by Bill Schambra to the Hewlett Foundation. Please watch these pages for a response next week from Paul Brest, the former president of the foundation and current professor at Stanford Law. In the meantime, we welcome your own commentary.

It is rare to have such straightforward criticism invited and given to a large foundation. We congratulate all involved.

I’d like to talk a bit today about the “problem” of strategic philanthropy.

I know that Im blundering directly into a dangerous tripwire here at the Hewlett Foundation, where, after all, strategic philanthropy is typically regarded not as a problem, but as a solution —if not the solution. But I’m sure at this forum you’ve experienced no shortage of speakers who have bought into that presupposition, and come here to urge you to press it ever further into the practice of grantmaking.

I’d like to go in the opposite direction today and suggest that strategic philanthropy does in fact bring with it some serious problems, especially for a nation that has long prided itself on the ability of its citizens to step forward and solve their own problems according to their own best lights.

The place to begin, I would suggest, is with one of the examples threaded through Money Well Spent: A Strategic Plan for Smart Philanthropy, by Paul Brest and Hal Harvey, which is surely one of the clearest and most cogent explanations of strategic philanthropy.

I should add quickly that nothing I say here today goes beyond what I’ve already said directly to Paul in several public debates, which he himself initiated. Perhaps because he had come to Hewlett from the law, Paul was one of the extraordinarily few foundation leaders who understood that philanthropy cannot improve unless it welcomes a vigorous and thoroughgoing back-and-forth about its means and its ends. Indeed, you will have read much of what I say today already in an article in SSIR entitled “Letting Go,” by Kristi Kimball and Malka Kopell, which I gather arose from an internal debate Paul encouraged here among his own program officers.

For that sort of openness, among his many virtues as a thought leader in philanthropy, he deserves our praise and admiration. And he deserves emulation, for the deliberate cultivation of that kind of critical discourse continues to be almost entirely absent from the sector today.

But having said all that, I’m going to pick on him a little bit by subjecting to cross-examination his example of the Northside Neighborhood Center from Money Well Spent. In Paul’s case study, the Center approaches the hypothetical Metro Community Foundation with a request for increased funding, because for the past couple of years, there’s been a winter-time surge in demand for food and other necessities among its largely Latino clients. The Center thinks the explanation might be due to seasonal unemployment, but the far more sophisticated Foundation, Paul notes, “has doubts” about that explanation. And so the Center is sent back to survey its clients, and finds that the increased demand may result from a spike in illness during the winter, depressing workforce participation.

Much brainstorming follows, during which the public health commissioner is consulted, and he suggests the problem is tied to the seasonal increase in influenza. A theory of change is then proposed, as Paul prescribes: it is hypothesized that vaccinating breadwinners against the flu will prevent an increase in demand for the Center’s services.

From that, a logic model is constructed for how to get from here to there. Numerical estimates for results are attached to each step, culminating in a calculation of actual dollars saved by a vaccine program. Beginning with a target of 3,000 community residents, we would need to recruit Spanish-speaking outreach workers who might contact 75% of the target. Eighty percent would sign up, 60% would show up, 90% of the vaccines would be effective, leaving us with 146 workers, or 15% of our initial total, protected against the flu, who would have lost a total of $70,080 in wages during flu season.

However, we find that the estimated cost of the program—the vaccine, the outreach workers, program administration—runs $73,700, making it slightly more expensive than the lost wages averted by the vaccines. Paul notes that this “mildly disappointing calculation may inspire the community foundation and neighborhood center to consider alternative strategies.”

Well, if I were the neighborhood center, I’d be inspired to consider this alternative strategy: Never, ever waste time again approaching that community foundation for a grant—or, for that matter, any other foundation besotted with the notion of strategic philanthropy. After all, as a long-standing and reputable center of community life, we know our neighborhood. Maybe the increase in demand for our services comes from construction slowdowns, maybe from the flu, maybe from a nation-wide economic crisis, or more likely, it comes from all of these factors and countless others.

Our duty as a front-line charity isn’t to sit around and speculate about abstract explanations for human need. It’s to meet the real, everyday, concrete human needs of those coming through our doors, regardless of the bewilderingly diverse causes that bring them to us.

But the Community Foundation doesn’t seem to value that. Since it has bought into strategic philanthropy, it wants us to sit around drinking herbal tea with its staff, filling whiteboards with guesses about why people have needs, and how to avert them altogether by getting at their root causes. It puts more trust in the college degrees earned by the public health director than in our hard-won, practical, face-to-face understanding of our own community, even though he’s probably spent more time fussing over the color of his office drapes than visiting our neighborhood.

So the foundation sends us back to face the pressing needs of our neighborhood not with a check, but with a copy of Paul Brest’s book telling us how to come up with theories of change and logic models.

Finally, when we all agree that the health director’s approach isn’t so sensible after all, does the Community Foundation admit that this was a fool’s errand and make us a grant, perhaps even recompensing us for all the wasted effort? No, we’re just invited back for more herbal tea and more whiteboarding.

Now, imagine the state of the charitable sector if most of our foundations began to put their grantees through this kind of drill—that is to say, if they followed Paul’s advice. Any grant request, even one as straightforward as help with emergency assistance, could be subjected to months of speculative and fruitless cud-chewing. And if a nonprofit approaches, say, twelve foundations for support, it may expect to be entangled in twelve such ordeals in order to satisfy twelve entirely different and idiosyncratic notions about acceptable theories of change.

Even were strategic philanthropy rational at the retail level—that is, for a single foundation—it is surely irrational at the wholesale level.

Now, foundations do in fact spend a great deal of time trying to remedy the wholesale irrationality of strategic philanthropy—that is, to bring some order to its current chaotic flood of randomly accumulating, non-additive, ephemeral statistical findings. Each foundation eagerly presses the others in its field to embrace its findings and adopt its approach. Research papers are commissioned and posted on the foundation’s website. Program officers are dispatched to conferences armed with snazzy, data-filled PowerPoint presentations. Think tanks and affinity groups are funded to collect the findings and distill from them the larger truths about the human condition. After all, as Paul puts it in his book, strategic philanthropy “requires an empirical, evidence-based understanding of the external world in which the plan will operate.”

After some fifteen years of this effort, we should be able to go to Amazon and download the latest edition of Authentic Scientific Findings to Plug Into Your Theory of Change, complete with a fulsome acknowledgement of funding from the Hewlett Foundation.

And yet we find no such thing.

Why not? Part of it, of course, is the “not invented here” factor. In spite of endlessly reiterated affirmations of the pressing need in the field for cooperation, collaboration, consortium, and other virtue-laden “hard c” words, the stubborn fact is that there are many institutional incentives for each foundation to pursue its own insulated and prideful way, and very few to submit to a larger collective.

But another and more important part is the fundamental deficiency of the science-based approach to solving human problems, which lies behind strategic philanthropy.

That approach, in fact, is nothing new. It was at the heart of the first large, modern foundations like Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Russell Sage, which arose at the turn of the 20th century. It was even at the heart of the community foundation movement, as the history of the pioneering Cleveland Foundation suggests.

They too rejected the everyday wisdom of charities like Northside Neighborhood Center, because they believed that the newly developing social sciences with their theories of change and logic models could carry us beyond charity, to strike decisively at the root causes of social problems.

This seemed to work with the natural sciences, because there, we knew what constituted knowledge and how to go about accumulating it. But in the social sciences, it was not so clear, nor, given human nature, is it ever likely to be.

To this day, theories about the causes of human behavior multiply endlessly. We are left with many interesting and diverse schools of thought on the subject. But we have no universally accepted collection of proven findings, waiting to be plugged into our theories of change.

So foundations, enamored as they are of “cutting-edge, innovative solutions,” are forever switching from one bright, shiny causal model to another, avidly following the latest philanthropic fads.

No wonder, then, that after a century of strategic philanthropy, involving untold billions of dollars, we have in fact failed to solve even one social problem once and for all, by penetrating to its root cause.

Meanwhile, charities like the Northside Neighborhood Center continue to do the everyday, back-breaking work of helping low-income communities.

But how do we know it’s doing a good job, the die-hard strategic philanthropist insists?

Only an extremely well-educated person could be stumped by this question.

Go down to the neighborhood and check it out, armed with common sense.

Is its parking lot full of cars? Is the lobby echoing with noise, bustle and confusion? Is this where people tend to come first, when they encounter problems of any and all sorts, whether or not listed on the group’s mission statement?

Do local residents and community elders have a high opinion of it? Does the neighborhood value it enough to protect it from vandalism and graffiti, and to support it with volunteer time and small donations?

Above all, entertain the possibility that this particular community came up with this particular institutional response because it intuitively, non-scientifically understands that while it may not work everywhere and forever, it does work here, now, in its own backyard.

Entertain the possibility that local knowledge and traditional wisdom may be superior to scientific rationality when it comes to solving human problems.

In fact, entertain the possibility that “solving problems” is itself a skewed and biased framework for approaching this question, privileging expert analytical solutions, and diminishing the unspoken, accumulated, idiosyncratic wisdom of the local and immediate community.

So the next time the Northside Neighborhood Center comes in for a grant, don’t give them a lecture about needing to come up with a logic model to justify what you know they’ve been doing quite well for years. Just write the damned check.

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