September 29, 2014 From the President

Thoughts About Data, Strategy and Accountability in Philanthropy

Here are some interesting reflections on data, strategy and accountability in philanthropic work that I came across in my September reading. All of them revolve in some way around the concept of shared learning and collective work, both of which will be actively discussed at our upcoming PFC conference.

Sharing Strategy

This summer there has been a dynamic exchange in the philanthropic world on both sides of the Atlantic about the meaning of strategic or “emergent” philanthropic strategy. This was kicked off by an article Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World that first appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in Summer 2014. The article was featured in a debate convened by Alliance Magazine which drew many very thoughtful comments. A summary of the comments and the response of the article authors, Mark Kramer, John Kania and Patty Russell was posted on the Alliance blog in early September. The original article drew a distinction among simple, complicated and complex problems that philanthropy tries to address, and suggested that an emergent approach was best for complex problems. Many commentators noted that emergent strategy is not new; it is what they are already doing as a common sense response to complexity. One of the contributions, from Michele Fugiel Gartner and Dan Overall from TRICO Foundation in Calgary, pointed out the learning opportunity offered by emergent strategy. They note that “for us, emergent philanthropy creates the opportunity to share exactly where our own journey is experiencing bumps and opens up the opportunity to learn from others using similar processes to achieve impact. “Kania, Kramer and Russell conclude that “working within complexity requires the grantmaking approach of many foundations to fundamentally change. Foundations cannot simply do their research and devise their strategies in their boardrooms. Instead they must undertake the messy and open process of collectively developing interdependent strategies together with civil society organizations, governments and corporations.”

Sharing Data

An article by Larry McGill Of Data, Impact and Buckyballs in Philanthropy uses the telling image of a “buckyball” or a soccer-ball like sphere of connected points, to describe a community as a complex network of interlocking relationships among individuals, families and organizations. Why talk about buckyballs? To explain that a foundation can only understand its impact and about how to bring about more systemic change by understanding the interconnections in the system. What does this mean for foundations and data? McGill suggests that foundations don’t need “data”, per se. Rather, “they need the philanthropic equivalent of market intelligence so they can design their interventions based upon the best possible understanding of the environment in which they work.” This, says McGill, is what we (and he) mean when we invoke terms like strategic philanthropy”. And what’s more, foundations cannot work strategically without working together. “To put it bluntly, foundations can either compile and share data with their peers about their grantmaking practices in order to work together more strategically, or they can continue to operate as lone wolves, content to tug compulsively at different spots on the buckyball only to watch it snap back to its original shape once their funding has ended.”

Sharing Accountability

Last but not least on my recommended reading list is a paper, Philanthropy and The Limits of Accountability, that suggests among other things, that “accountability isn’t just about data transparency. It’s also about relationships.” This thoughtful piece is a report on a series of roundtable discussions among many foundations in 2012 and 2013 which explored in depth what “accountability” and “transparency” might mean for philanthropy. The idea of accountability is not just a question of reporting data. “From the standpoint of the citizen….an institution shows accountability by demonstrating that it is in relationship to the citizens it serves.” Many foundation leaders spoke during the roundtables of their relationships with grantees, emphasizing the importance of sharing motives, goals and respect. They recognize that foundations must come to grips with the need for public accountability as well as institutional accountability and that it will be useful for philanthropy to engage with these issues as a sector. Indeed, this report provides a stepping off point for just such a discussion in our sector.

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