June 6, 2014 From the President

Philanthropy in a Complex World

blog-june-6-2014Many of us have been informed and stimulated over the years by the thought leadership of philanthropy advisor Mark Kramer and his colleagues. Mark has published a number of his influential arguments about philanthropic strategy in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR). In 2005, at PFC’s first national conference in Toronto, Mark spoke to us about the importance of bold philanthropic leadership, based on his article “Leading Boldly” first published in the SSIR in 2004. This article was followed by two more, “Catalytic Philanthropy” and “Collective Impact”, both of which had considerable effect on debates in Canada about philanthropic strategy. Now Mark and his colleagues John Kania and Patty Russell have published a fourth article on philanthropic strategy, Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World.

Their argument, in brief, is that the approach of “strategic philanthropy” with its theories of change, carefully selected goals and measurement of outcomes is best suited to simple social problems (eg improving the physical structures of a health facility) or complicated problems (eg developing a vaccine) but not so much to complex problems (eg improving health outcomes of a population). This is because, the authors say, these latter problems are “dynamic, non-linear and counter-intuitive”, involving many factors that come into play with each other that make it difficult to have fixed plans and goals. The best approach, they suggest, to complex social challenges is an “emergent” one in which strategies and activities are constantly evolving as funders learn and adjust their plans. “Emergent strategy still requires that a clear strategic intent guide the funder’s actions, but it acknowledges that specific outcomes cannot be predicted”. Emergent philanthropic strategies will, by definition, constantly change to deal with changing circumstances. Another important aspect of emergent strategy is that “ it focuses on strengthening the systems and relationships that can generate solutions, rather than on constructing the solutions themselves.”

These are useful observations, but I tend to agree with the comments of some of the respondents to the article, also featured in the SSIR, who note that the idea of emergence is not new. I support Kenneth Prewitt’s comment that “foundation history is littered with examples of …refashioning grant strategies when unanticipated connections – constructive as well as obstructive – come into view.” A few years ago, Frances Westley and Brenda Zimmerman, two Canadian academics, discussed in their book Getting to Maybe, how Canadian social innovators, supported by their funders, have used emergent approaches to come up with innovative ways of tackling complex social problems. This is not unusual in the Canadian context, in which foundations have not typically been of a size or had the inclination to follow highly structured strategies. Over the last decade, Westley, Zimmerman and others interested in social innovation have developed ideas about making social change that emphasize concepts such as fluidity, and cycle metaphors taken from biology such as creation, growth, destruction and regeneration. Emergence fits naturally into this way of thinking.

I think that the Canadian philanthropic community is increasingly interested in tackling complex social problems and is using emergent thinking to do it. It’s just not labeled that way. Interestingly, Kramer, Kania and Russell cite a Canadian foundation example in their discussion of the application of emergent philanthropy. They recount the “intentional yet flexible approach” of the J.W.McConnell Foundation’s Sports for Development initiative. This was an exploratory initiative to delve into the ways in which sports at the community level builds resilience and engagement among children and youth. John Cawley of McConnell describes their approach as “co-creation” of strategy with partners. Knowing that more could be done by linking together many voices, McConnell focused on the creation of relationships and took the emerging opportunity offered by Sport Matters, a national advocacy body for community sport, to leverage a much greater public investment in sports development. Innovative as it is, this is not a strategy unique to McConnell. Many Canadian funders are open to connection with each other and with their community partners in ways that allow them to spot “emerging” possibilities and to act on them. So while Mark Kramer and his colleagues are putting a useful spotlight on the possibilities offered by a more fluid emergent strategy approach, it also has very familiar echoes to the Canadian philanthropic community.

What’s your reaction to the idea of emergent strategy in philanthropy? If you have Canadian examples of emergent strategy in practice, please share them by commenting on this post. We are eager to share our practice!

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