We help donors implement the principles of “strategic,” “data-driven” or “outcome-oriented” philanthropy in ways that embrace rather than frustrate the charitable impulse that ought to animate our work in the social sector.
Strategy is a military word. The Greek strategos was a field general, and classically strategists studied how such generals deployed and exercised military force to win battles and, over time, wars. Because the most interesting battles often have to do with unexpected victories over supposedly superior forces, and because credit for those victories is often due to deception and trickery– think Odysseus and the Trojan horse—deploying the term ‘strategy’ in conversation can often invoke a sense that something devious or cunning is at play.
Such associations threaten to render the very notion of strategy in philanthropy unseemly. Talk of strategy fits more comfortably in contexts such as business and sports, which are unapologetically more ‘warlike’ than the social sector is supposed to be. Whereas the language of opponents, competition, victory and secrets are not out of place in the those worlds, philanthropy fancies itself a domain in with collaboration, compassion, creativity and transparency are watchwords.
Nevertheless, strategy in philanthropy can be a meaningful and useful idea so long as we think of strategy very broadly as the skillful articulation of goals, cultivation of resources and coordination of action. In other words, any strategy must answer three basic questions:
- What do I want to achieve?
- What do I have (and what can I reasonably get) that can help me achieve it?
- What is the best way to use what I have in order to achieve what I want?
Any strategy worth its salt must consider all three components—ends, ways and means in the language of the Army War College—holistically. Alas, this is more difficult than it might seem at first glance. Many mistake strategy for goal-setting, which is indeed an element of strategy but never exhausts its meaning. In the military context, goals are frequently not up for debate; they are products of an outside, usually political process. And, since field commanders usually cannot rapidly change the means available to them, discussions about military strategy often are constrained to focus on what is left– determining ways. Certainly, we can learn a great deal from studying these partially strategic reflections, but until we weave them all together, we do not yet have a strategy. No amount of goal setting, ways determination, inventorying or ‘landscaping’ exercises on their own is going to help you sack Troy. You need a strategy for that.
You can rest assured that here at Remington Weld we are not going to let you cheat yourself out of the satisfactions endemic to the development and execution of a full-fledged philanthropic strategy. We also take seriously the trend to view the means available to philanthropy as having moved beyond the provision of money alone in the form of grants (although let’s not diminish the importance of doing this well) to include direct charitable activities as well as the exercise of influence in the realm of public policy. There’s also the matter of ‘data,’ which is often imbued was quasi-magical properties and thought to ‘drive’ things in philanthropy. But, that is mostly nonsense where it isn’t trivial, a topic of a blog post I’ll get around to writing one of these days.