Introducing the Intrinsic Investing Blog

Hey Tactical Philanthropy Community! It is hard to believe it has been almost four years since my final farewell post. I’ve been busy working on building Ensemble Capital, my wealth management firm where we specialize in serving philanthropic families.

As long time readers know well, writing Tactical Philanthropy was an incredibly stimulating and joyful experience for me. So I’m thrilled to let you know I’m getting back to writing with a new blog called Intrinsic Investing.

While Tactical Philanthropy focused on taking an investment approach to philanthropy, Intrinsic Investing explores for-profit investing.

The Blog: Intrinsic Investing

Our Twitter Presence: @IntrinsicInv

My LinkedIn Profile: Sean Stannard-Stockton

My company: Ensemble Capital Management

This October will mark a full decade since I wrote the first post for Tactical Philanthropy! I’d love to count members of the Tactical Philanthropy Community among the readers of Intrinsic Investing as I chart the next chapter of my writing career.

If you’d like to reconnect, use my LinkedIn page or the Contact Us section of Intrinsic Investing.

Happy New Year and thank you for your long time interest in my work!


The Tactical Philanthropy Blog

From 2006 through 2012, Sean Stannard-Stockton authored the Tactical Philanthropy blog. At its peak, Tactical Philanthropy played host to a rollicking debate about effective philanthropy and chronicled what Sean termed The Second Great Wave of Philanthropy. Far from being just a platform for Sean’s writing, the Tactical Philanthropy blog published guest posts from some of the most prominent and innovative members of the philanthropic community and the 25,000 monthly readers engaged in robust discussions in the blog’s comments section. The ideas and discussions featured on the blog were frequently quoted and referenced by such media outlets as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Financial Times and the Chronicle of Philanthropy. While Sean no longer maintains the Tactical Philanthropy blog, the six year archive still attracts thousands of unique visitors each month.

Today, Sean is the president and chief investment officer at Ensemble Capital Management, a wealth management firm located on the San Francisco Peninsula midway between San Francisco and Silicon Valley. He is also the lead author of Intrinsic Investing, a publication of Ensemble Capital. You can learn more about Sean and Ensemble Capital’s services at

Strategic & Tactical Philanthropy: A Truce

Paul Brest, the outgoing president of the Hewlett Foundation, has written an elegant article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled A Decade of Outcome-Oriented Philanthropy. Paul helped push my thinking over the years by willingly engaging me in public debates about my ideas on Tactical Philanthropy and his views on Strategic Philanthropy. I’m honored that in his article looking back at how philanthropy has evolved over the past decade, he draws on a framework I proposed for distinguishing between different approaches to effective philanthropy.

After offering a compelling description of the “stirrings of a movement” towards outcome-oriented philanthropy over the past ten years, Paul writes:

“Outcome-oriented philanthropy has two major focal points: supporting organizations and problem-solving philanthropy.1 …There are three different strategies for supporting organizations: philanthropic buying, providing risk and growth capital, and impact investing…. The second major type of outcome-oriented philanthropy is problem-solving philanthropy. Whereas philanthropists often buy services and support organizations in order to solve problems, problem-solving philanthropists put the problem rather than the organization at the center.”

Paul’s footnote says that his framework is influenced by an essay I wrote titled The Three Core Approaches to Effective Philanthropy in which I described strategic philanthropy as “problem-solving philanthropy” and used the terms “charitable giving” and “philanthropic investing” to describe what Paul calls “philanthropic buying” and “providing risk and growth capital”. Paul also adds impact investing as an additional category, which I think makes sense.

In my earliest writing on tactical vs. strategic philanthropy I criticized strategic approaches, or what Paul calls “problem-solving philanthropy”, as prone to ineffectiveness due to difficulties I think arise from philanthropists trying to design and implement solutions to social problems rather than focusing on investing in nonprofits — “providing risk and growth capital” — so that the nonprofit can design and implement solutions. But as I debated Paul and refined my ideas, I came to the conclusion that strategic philanthropy/problem-solving philanthropy could be executed effectively and that my real concern was that problem-solving philanthropy was too often put forward as the only form of effective philanthropy, giving short shrift to the tactical approach of providing risk and growth capital that I felt deserved more attention.

In my piece on the three core approaches, I put forward the proposal that all of the approaches could be effective, but that they required very different expertise and were very different activities. In a sense I was calling a truce in my debate with Paul. I was putting forward the idea that both his strategic, problem solving approach and the tactical, organizational supporting approaches were distinct but legitimate forms of effective philanthropy.

In Paul’s article, he seems to accept my proposed truce and places the tactical approaches on even footing with strategic philanthropy while recognizing their distinct methods. Paul still does ask that we refer to all of the approaches as “strategic” and argues that the investment and buying approaches are species of strategic philanthropy, not entirely different animals. I can accept that. There’s no sense arguing semantics if we agree on the meaning.

Paul ends the article writing that, “the decade ends with healthy debates on these issues in journals and blogs that did not exist at its inception, and with many of the institutions and practices mentioned in the preceding pages flourishing.” I’m proud that for the second half of Paul’s “decade of outcome-oriented philanthropy”, the tactical philanthropy blog was a vibrant hub for those debates. It was a magnificent five years for me and the most intensively intellectually stimulating experience I’ve ever had. Those debates were formative for me and I hope they helped the 25,000 readers who visited each month expand their own thinking about philanthropy.

But that time is done for me. Having put off officially ending this blog by declaring myself on sabbatical for the past five months, it is now time for me to face the fact that I’m not coming back to philanthropy blogging any time soon.

My firm Ensemble Capital, where we focus on providing investment management to philanthropists, has been thriving and growing. The intellectual challenge of investing now consumes me the way thoughts on investing in nonprofits once did. While I miss writing, if I do decide to start blogging again it would be to launch a blog about stock picking. As I’ve written in the past, it was investing that led me to philanthropy. Rather than a departure from the past, my focus on investing is a return to my roots. A return to the teenager reading books about stock picking on long family car trips.

When we live our lives online, we by necessity present a piece of ourselves, not our full selves. I care passionately about philanthropy, but also about investing, parenting, politics and baseball (among other things), although I never blogged about those topics. Ending this blog doesn’t suggest I am no longer passionate about philanthropy (I continue to work with major donors every day at Ensemble Capital), it just means that it is time for other facets of my personality to explore their own domains.

As I’ve said before, writing this blog was one of the best experiences of my life. It was you, the Tactical Philanthropy Community, that made this blog come alive.

Thank you. I hope our paths cross again soon!

Tactical Philanthropy Goes On Sabbatical

Almost exactly five years ago I sat down at my computer and typed out eight simple words.

“Welcome to the Second Great Wave of Philanthropy.”

They were the first words I ever wrote on this blog. At the time I never would have guessed that those little words would launch me on a journey of philanthropic discovery that would take me on a crisscrossing tour (both online and off) of America’s vibrant philanthropic community. I have learned so much from the Tactical Philanthropy community and have become only more convinced that the field of philanthropy is rushing forward toward a Second Great Wave of philanthropic activity that is fundamentally different from the philanthropy of the last century.

But now it is time for me to take a break from writing and focus on other areas of my life. Starting today, I’m taking a sabbatical of indefinite length from writing this blog. I hope I’ll be back at some point, but I can’t say with any certainty when. At this time, I find that I want to pour myself into other aspects of my life; my family, my community, my other personal passions and the building of my investment management business which gave rise to all of this half a decade ago.

While I won’t be writing with any regularity, I’ll still be following along with what’s going on in our field. I believe that the next five years will see the visible impact of the Giving Pledge, the advent of Social Impact Bonds and the coming of age of the effective philanthropy movement. While I won’t be chronicling this shared journey we are on together, I’ll still be a member of the tribe.

Writing this blog has certainly changed the trajectory of my life. I’d like to think that as a group we’ve helped nudge the trajectory of philanthropy along the path leading towards effectiveness.

Every one of you reading this has helped make this blog what it has been. You gave me the gift of your attention, interest and engagement. I am forever indebted to the Tactical Philanthropy community for helping make me the person I am today and nudging me along the path of my own personal life journey.

Thank you.

Giving 2.0

My friend Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen is a pretty remarkable person. She is the founder of SV2, a silicon valley based donor partnership focused on venture philanthropy. After launching and teaching Stanford’s first philanthropy course, she started the school’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. And now she’s published a philanthropy book called Giving 2.0 that focuses on how people from all walks of life can engage in effective philanthropy.

The easiest way to learn more about the book is through this video:

(Click here to see the view if you are reading this via email.)

And of course Laura has a new blog and is trying out Twitter. You can learn more at the Giving 2.0 website.

In a testament to how deeply connected and admired Laura is in the philanthropy world, the endorsements for the book reads like a who’s who of the field:

Melinda Gates: “Giving 2.0 empowers everyone-from volunteers to donors to advocates-to get the most out of their giving and themselves.”

Judith Rodin: “Arrillaga-Andreessen is a brilliant storyteller who has the rare gift of animating both the heart and mind of philanthropy”

Mark Benioff: “Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen shows us the power of new thinking around philanthropy”

Paul Brest: “Through vignettes of individual and family philanthropists, Laura Arrillaga, a great philanthropist and leader in her own right, captures both the passion and tough analysis and decision making necessary to turn that passion into results.”

You can order the book here. If you are in the Bay Area, you should consider attending the October 27th book launch:

Thursday, October 27, 2011
CEMEX Auditorium at the Stanford Graduate School of Business

Doors Open 5:30pm. Program 6:00pm-7:00pm. Be the first to hear the extraordinary leader Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, Stanford PACS founder and Advisory Board chair, and author of the new book Giving 2.0: Transform Your Giving and Our World during launch week. Jim Canales, President of The James Irvine Foundation and Stanford Trustee will be making the special introduction. Laura is a remarkable leader, teacher, speaker, and philanthropist providing important, accessible insights for givers of all ages, interests, or levels, and whether giving time, networks, or expertise. In Giving 2.0, readers go on a fascinating journey through the fast-changing world of giving and read compelling stories of individual philanthropists. This is the Stanford and Silicon Valley main event for the book launch!

RSVP here:

An Idea That Spreads: Intercontinental Ballistic Microfinance

I’ve written a number of times about the tension between logic and empathy. I think it is critical that the effective philanthropy movement recognize that while data is an important input to good decision making, it can also dampen the very emotions that drive giving. That’s why I think it is critical that high performing organizations learn how to tell authentic stories about their impact. Stories that are based on solid data about what works, but which respect the role of emotion in the field of philanthropy.

Kiva is an organization that I’ve held up in the past as really understanding how to tell an authentic story that “sticks” (in the vocabulary of the must-read book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die). The point of Made to Stick is that a good story is true, but it must also be told in such a way that it spreads. Too often I worry that the effective philanthropy movement is convinced that if they can just find the “truth” about what works, the rest will take care of itself. But I don’t think that’s enough. We need to discover the “truth” about what works and learn how to tell the story of that “truth” in a way that spreads.

Here is a new video by Kiva. The video presents data about the increasing level of microfinance loans made by the organization over time. But this ain’t no Excel graph…

(click here to watch the video if you’re viewing this in an email)


This data is just as “true” as a simple chart like this one (which actual does represent Kiva’s loan growth from early 2006 through late 2007):

Kiva Loan Growth

In the book Made to Stick, the authors talk about how a group of food scientists spent a long time telling people about how much fat was in movie popcorn. But it wasn’t until they figured out how to tell the story of how bad movie popcorn was for you through laying out a table top covered with bacon, eggs and cake to demonstrate how much fat was in the product that people started paying attention.

First we need to figure out what works. Then we need to figure how to communicate the story about what works in a way that drives people to action. Too often, “effective philanthropy” is obsessed with the first step and ignores the second. Too often, successful fundraising is done with the second step in mind while the first is ignored.

What we need is storytelling for impact that drives people to take action in service of programs that work.

Extended Registration for GuideStar Webinar

Last week, I posted a note about the GuideStar webinar I’m doing tomorrow, October 5. The registration response has been overwhelming and GuideStar hit their 1,300 person registration limit on the same day that I let readers know about the event. Since a number of Tactical Philanthropy readers have asked if there is a way for them to attend, GuideStar has agreed to open up a series of additional registration slots for my readers.

If you’re interested, just shoot me an email.

Details for the webinar on October 5 at 2pm eastern:

The Second Great Wave of Philanthropy

Yesterday: Andrew Carnegie. John D. Rockefeller. Andrew W. Mellon.
Today: Bill Gates. Oprah Winfrey. You? Your neighbor?

Today’s major donors don’t look like yesterday’s major donors. And today’s major donors don’t look at nonprofits the same way, either. Join us as Sean Stannard-Stockton—wealth advisor to philanthropic families, author of the influential blog Tactical Philanthropy, and Chronicle of Philanthropy columnist—speaks about the Second Great Wave of Philanthropy and how major donors are shifting their perspectives on the kinds of nonprofits they want to support.

Sean Stannard-Stockton’s GuideStar Webinar

On October 5th at 2pm eastern, I’ll be leading a free webinar for GuideStar.

The Second Great Wave of Philanthropy

Yesterday: Andrew Carnegie. John D. Rockefeller. Andrew W. Mellon.
Today: Bill Gates. Oprah Winfrey. You? Your neighbor?

Today’s major donors don’t look like yesterday’s major donors. And today’s major donors don’t look at nonprofits the same way, either. Join us as Sean Stannard-Stockton—wealth advisor to philanthropic families, author of the influential blog Tactical Philanthropy, and Chronicle of Philanthropy columnist—speaks about the Second Great Wave of Philanthropy and how major donors are shifting their perspectives on the kinds of nonprofits they want to support.

Click here to register or learn more. The last GuideStar webinar I hosted was one of their top draws ever with over 1,000 people registering. So register now if you want to make sure you get a spot!

The Ultimate Question for the Nonprofit Sector

This is my newest column for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. You’ll find an archive of my past columns here.

Foundations and nonprofits are constantly looking for the right tools to measure success.

One of the most effective sources of information might come from the people who rely on an organization, suggests a new the book, The Ultimate Question 2.0, in which the veteran management consultant Fred Reichheld demonstrates that asking one simple question of a business’s customers can often reveal more about their performance than more traditional financial or product analyses.

The question is: "How likely is it that you would recommend Company X to a friend or colleague?"

Since recipients of nonprofit services don’t typically pay the costs of the services they receive, this approach to measuring results must be modified when applied to the social sector.

But a number of organizations are working on ways to reach out to beneficiaries of a nonprofit or foundation as well as to the general public. In so doing they may find the same connection Mr. Reichheld did.

The Center for Effective Philanthropy is one of the pioneers of this work.

For more than a decade, it has conducted studies of grant recipients and others to help foundations figure out how to reinforce strengths and fix weaknesses. Its flagship Grantee Perception Report has now been commissioned by more than 190 foundations.

The center has also been working on a Beneficiary Perception Report. Its pilot program is called YouthTruth and gathers the feedback of high school students who attend schools supported by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In a report published this month, the Center for Effective Philanthropy notes that few foundations collect information from beneficiaries. The fact that the intended recipients of foundation programs are rarely asked for feedback highlights how much room there is in the social sector for Ultimate Question type measurement approaches to be deployed.

Keystone, a London charity, is also doing important work to gather and analyze the views of people a charity tries to serve.  They are working with students in university service learning programs to gather what they call constituent voice; feedback from the beneficiaries of nonprofit programs

Since foundations serve the public good and not just one group of beneficiaries, they must reach out to a lot of different kinds of people to assess their work.

The James Irvine Foundation, for instance, has been publishing their Grantee Perception Report from the Center for Effective Philanthropy and actively seeking public feedback on their annual performance. Importantly, the foundation’s president, Jim Canales specifically says they are looking for feedback from critics of their work.

"The power dynamic inherent in philanthropy makes it critical that we resist the temptation to talk more than listen," Mr. Canales writes, "precisely because people will always listen politely to anything we have to say, regardless of its utility."

He recognizes that nonprofits tend not to tell foundations when they’re doing a bad job and it is the rare foundation that has ever lacked enough groups eager to take its money.

A similar dynamic exists between many beneficiaries and nonprofits, because a person in need of social services rarely is in a position to turn down subpar assistance. Few nonprofits ask such clients what they could do to better serve them. But organizations could make more vigorous efforts to encourage such feedback.

It is with this dynamic in mind that I’m reminded of a plea by Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute for foundations to not react defensively when they are criticized but instead to actively seek out and encourage criticism.

"Foundations need to make it conscious policy to welcome-and even encourage-criticism." Mr. Hess wrote in Philanthropy, the magazine published by the Philanthropy Roundtable.

"Given that even tart-tongued observers will be unusually reluctant to share their thoughts, foundations need to make it extravagantly clear that they will not blacklist critics-or look kindly upon those who do. Only this kind of scrutiny, will flag blind spots, wishful thinking, or ineffective spending.

Whether the foundation personnel agree with such assessments, engaging with them is essential to forestalling the plagues of hubris and groupthink that are so much a part of human nature."

It is asking a lot of any organization to actively seek out criticism. But it is only by asking for constructive feedback that nonprofits and foundations can expect to improve the quality of their contributions to society.

Reader Suggestions for Next Hewlett President

HewlettPaul Brest, president of the Hewlett Foundation, comments on my post yesterday:

“I am not taking any part in the search for my successor as president of the Hewlett Foundation, but if I were on the Foundation’s search committee I would welcome ideas from readers of Sean’s blog.”

Below is the list of people suggested by the Tactical Philanthropy community as potential successors to Paul Brest. Given the number of emails I got from readers (I’m intrigued that not a single person made a public suggestion via a comment, but instead most emails reiterated the importance of anonymity), I’ve listed those people who were suggested by at least two different readers. If your suggestion didn’t make the list or if you have yet to make your suggestion, leave your thoughts as a comment to this post.

So here we go…

Jeff Bradach: Jeff is co-founder and managing partner of the Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit consulting firm well know for their work with foundations and philanthropists.

Phil Buchanan: Phil is the president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, a leading research organization focused on providing information to help improve the effectiveness of foundations.

Jim Canales: Jim is the president of the James Irvine Foundation and is well known for pushing the philanthropic field to be more transparent.

Jed Emerson: Jed has played many roles in philanthropy and impact investing. He has worked in the past at the Hewlett Foundation and is well known to most readers of this blog.

Katherine Fulton: Katherine of president of the Monitor Institute, a consulting firm and think tank focused on working with organizations seeking to achieve social impact.

Paul Grogan: Paul is president of the Boston Foundation where he has a led a shift at the foundation to focus on making unrestricted, general operating support grants.

Michael Kaiser: Michael is the president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Before entering the social sector, Michael founded a strategic planning firm that worked with large corporations.

Grant Oliphant: Grant is the president of the Pittsburgh Foundation. Grant is outspoken, shows up regularly in blogs, video chats and other public venues and has a history of supporting philanthropic infrastructure.

Sonal Shah: Sonal was the first head of the Office of Social Innovation at the White House. Prior to working there, she was head of global development initiatives at Google. Sonal recently left her position at OSI.

Paul Shoemaker: Paul is the public face of the Social Venture Partners movement and has been deeply involved in many initiatives to advance the field of philanthropy.

Nancy Roob: Nancy is the president of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, a foundation known as a leading practitioner of evidence-based grantmaking and the recipient of the largest grant from the Social Innovation Fund.

Bob Ross: Bob is the president of the California Endowment… and he has a blog!

Albert Ruesga: Albert is the president of the Greater New Orleans Foundation and is well known to philanthropy blog readers as the author of the White Courtesy Telephone blog.

Fay Twersky: Fay recently joined the Hewlett Foundation as a senior fellow who “will work with President Paul Brest and the Foundation’s program teams to refine and consolidate the Foundation’s efforts to measure the progress and effectiveness of its grant portfolios… [and] will spend some of her time writing and offering reflections to the field on issues facing both nonprofit and philanthropic institutions.” Previous to joining Hewlett, she was at the Gates Foundation designing and developing their Impact Planning & Improvement division. According to Paul Brest, “Fay Twersky is simply one of the most knowledgeable and strategic thinkers in the field of philanthropy.”

Jane Wales: Jane is president of World Affairs Council of Northern California, president of the Global Philanthropy Forum and president of the philanthropy program at the Aspen Institute (yes, all three). She’s also host of the nationally syndicated NPR radio show “It’s Your World”.

Al Gore: This one only got one mention. But I add it in because it is oddly appropriate. Vice-president Gore has been out of politics for some time and focused on environmental issues (a core program for Hewlett). In the age of the Giving Pledge, might taking over the presidency of a multi-billion dollar foundation be a new role of choice for ex-global leaders?

I think this is a fascinating list. It is far from exhaustive, but certainly seems to line up well with the list of characteristics I said I was hoping to see in Hewlett’s next president.

However, I have a challenge to the Tactical Philanthropy community. Where are the leaders of nonprofit organizations on this list [update: I meant nonprofit direct service organizations]? Might not a major foundation and the field of philanthropy benefit from at least considering the leader of a top nonprofit organization?

I hope you will consider adding more suggestions to this list or adding your thoughts to those who have been named in the comments section.