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 director of investments and oversees philanthropic services at Ensemble Capital Management, a wealth management firm located on the San Francisco Peninsula midway between San Francisco and Silicon Valley. 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.

Charity Navigator 2.0 in Context

This is a guest post by Ken Berger, president and CEO of Charity Navigator.

By Ken Berger

Ken BergerOn September 20th of this year, Charity Navigator (CN) launched a significant change to our rating system (called CN 2.0). In follow-up, Sean has kindly offered me the opportunity to put this event in the context of CN’s present and future. In addition, it offers me the chance to address some criticisms from the “three C’s” (critics, competitors and charities with lower ratings).

In 2010, CN formed an Advisory Panel. Sean is a member, along with a number of other members of the Alliance for Effective Social Investing, nonprofit operators, academicians and other experts in the nonprofit arena. We shared with them our preliminary thinking on the new Accountability and Transparency dimension and used much of their feedback, along with all our staff and our Board, in the final product you see today on our site. The end result is a dimension we have weighted a full 50% of the rating score for each nonprofit. As a consequence, there has been a major shift in the rating of many nonprofits we evaluate. A few statistics to prove the point:

  1. We saw roughly 40% (around 600 out of 1500 nonprofits) lose their four stars rating, and another 20% gain it (around 300) with a net loss of 20% of four star rated nonprofits in our system.
  2. 49% of the nonprofits we rate saw a change in their overall star rating (around 2,650). 19% saw a decline in overall score and 30% an increase.
  3. There was an 8% increase in the number of nonprofits rated good (3 stars) or better.

Overall, the collective response of our site users has been positive, if not thrilled with the new information. Nonprofits as always, given the nature of “winners and losers” at ratings, have been both positive and negative. However, the vast majority do not question the importance of a good portion of this information. After all, the Nonprofit Panel (formed by Independent Sector) spent years to devise a set of Principles of Good Governance and Ethical Practices that encompass a good part of the territory covered by our new rating dimension.

One of the most striking results of this change in the rating system is the amazing response of many nonprofits (both “winners and losers” in the new rating system). This is a far cry from when we began operations ten years ago and you could hear a pin drop when we asked for information! The number of new governance and ethical practices implemented by nonprofits we evaluate, as well as posting of information on their web sites, has already totaled over 1,000 and continue apace. Here and here are two examples of web site pages that reflect these types of changes.

As noted earlier, some of the members of the Alliance for Effective Social Investing have been helpful advisors to CN in thinking through how we have been moving forward. Below is a chart that reflects one iteration of some Alliance member’s thinking on the critical qualities that define a high impact organization.


The basic point is that all these dimensions must be present to maintain a high performing or high impact organization. Therefore, for those who question the importance of financial health in measuring a nonprofit’s performance, I refer them to our advisors, as well as to any nonprofit CEO or CFO who must constantly concern him or herself with the financial efficiency and sustainability of the organization. To say results are all that matters is to deny the question of whether the organization will be able to afford to operate and provide those same results for the long haul.

Regarding overhead, show me a nonprofit that uses 70% of its funds for overhead and and I’m 90% sure it is an organization that is either clueless or focused on lining someone’s pockets rather than serving others. People may disagree on what the best metric of overhead should be, but to say overhead is dead or a red herring is to deny a useful indicator of where many thieves and scoundrels dwell. I have worked in enough nonprofits with unethical leaders to say without question that we need to get serious about their existence as more than a rarity (see the book Silence, by Gary Snyder). This is not meant to imply that we think our financial metrics can not be improved upon! I refer you to a blog post I wrote a while back on the limits of focusing on overhead alone. In addition, we have recently formed a task force of financial experts to think through possible changes to our traditional financial metrics.

As to the value of Accountability and Transparency (CN 2.0), if a nonprofit does not have strong governance and ethical practices it greatly increases the risk that someone will rip them and their donors off. Therefore, good impact today can once again be of short duration if you do not have such practices and oversight in place. Furthermore, measures of transparency such as posting critical information on the nonprofit’s web site, provides all stakeholders with a chance to monitor the organization to at least some degree. That further mitigates against unethical behavior that could take a nonprofit on the road to ruin.

Of course results are the key and the central quality that every nonprofit should be focused on! However, to suggest that results (impact, outcomes and the like) are the only concern a nonprofit should be focused on reflects a fundamental denial of what is necessary to sustain those results. My thirty years of operating nonprofits provides me with an endless stream of examples of how critical all three dimensions are to assuring ongoing high performance and ultimately impact.

Looking ahead we are now in the second year of developing the third dimension of our rating system which evaluates the quality of results reporting of nonprofits (which we are calling CN 3.0). Thanks to seed funding from the Hewlett Foundation, we have been testing a number of possible prototypes for how we will go about this analysis. In addition, we have secured the help of a number of graduate schools and volunteers from around the country to do background research as well as try out the prototypes we have developed.

We are hopeful that we can formally announce what the selected tool will look like by next year and then begin the process of compiling this data on all of the nonprofits we evaluate. However, we intend to continue to conduct basic research and continuously improve the results reporting metrics as we learn. For example, it is conceivable that we will measure results differently at least to some degree, by nonprofit cause area, based on the aforementioned research.

Furthermore, as always, we will provide this information at no cost to our users. In addition, we will provide our four star seal at no cost to the nonprofits who receive it. Therefore, the added effort that will be required to analyze nonprofits performance in all three dimensions requires us to scale up our operations significantly. We plan to do this with the growing support we anticipate from voluntary donations from our users, foundation funding and earned income. In addition, we hope to recruit a significant number of volunteers to expand our capacity to deepen our rating system (to CN 3.0) and broaden our coverage (we have a goal to roughly double the number of nonprofits we evaluate from 5,500 to 10,000).

Looking further down the road, we hope that some day we and our competitors will truly collaborate by aggregating data to deepen our rating system even further. However, that is a blog for another day.

Philanthropy Daily Digest 10/18/2011

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Funders & Grantees: Owning the Message & Maximizing Impact

This is a guest post by Rich Polt, the founder of Communicate Good.

By Rich Polt

Rich PoltThe best communications campaigns are grounded with a single, clear idea. For truly iconic campaigns, the line between idea and slogan is blurred, such that all you need to hear is the message itself and you immediately know who it’s from: “Yes we can,” “Just do it,” “The other white meat.”

Achieving this kind of communications nirvana is not easy. It’s challenging for even the most focused, experienced and disciplined nonprofit (and for-profits for that matter) to develop a simple message and to deliver it to audiences in a compelling manner, again and again and again.

Unfortunately, by the very nature of the grantor-grantee relationship, clear messaging in this sector often falls prey to the compromises and hoop-jumping that is required to secure funding. The net result is not just weaker messaging and marketing campaigns, but ultimately diminished philanthropic and societal impact.

I recently saw this unintended and unfortunate dynamic with a nonprofit that had secured a sizable grant from a funder. While both funder and grantee undertook the collaboration because of clear mission synergies, the reality was that the funder brought tremendous leverage and its own marketing agenda to the mix. Despite both parties feeling that they were entering the relationship with eyes wide open, the nonprofit ultimately needed to have its external message take a back seat to that of the funder for the campaign. We’re not talking about a major conflict of messaging mind you. But it was enough of a nuanced shift that the growing nonprofit was no longer able to articulate its unique value proposition.

Communications is a discipline that by its very nature is squishy, subjective, and difficult to evaluate. In the same way that the Tactical Philanthropy community perpetually seeks better mechanisms for measuring philanthropic impact, thoughtful communications professionals lose sleep over how to best measure the return on their efforts. What does it mean to create buzz or to become a thought leader? So naturally, when we look at the interplay between two arguably nebulous disciplines – communications and philanthropic impact – it is difficult to quantify the problem.

This tension in funder-grantee communications mirrors the already documented tensions between funders and their grantees in other areas: program efficacy, mission drift, boardroom relations, etc. In a study by The Center for Effective Philanthropy on funder-grantee relationships, a key finding (detailed on the bottom of page 10) is that the “pressure grantees feel to modify their priorities in order to receive a grant” is an important contributor to the measure of the overall relationship. We know this is a very real issue. So it stands to reason that this also impacts the realm of communications.

While I am looking at this problem from the lens of the nonprofit, it is equally possible for the reverse situation to hold true. When smaller foundations, ambitiously working to create their own brand in the market, make grants to powerhouse nonprofits, they run the risk of having their messages eclipsed by that of their steamrolling grantees.

So what should be done?

A comprehensive analysis of this issue is outside the scope of this blog post and the sheer complexities involved indicate that no one-size-fits-all solution is practical. However, I do believe there are some basic preventative measures that both funder and grantee can take as they embark on a collaborative marketing effort.

1) Have a heart to heart. Both parties should acknowledge outwardly – from the very beginning – that they each have their own marketing agendas. Share these. Discuss key messages. Are there any messages that are so fundamental to identity that they cannot be compromised? Make communications part of the larger conversation about philanthropic impact and the intended outcomes of the relationship.

2) Know who is leading the charge. At the end of the day, one person needs to be responsible for the success of this campaign. Is it someone on the funder side or the grantee side? This fact alone says a lot about where ultimate messaging power should lie.

3) Sacrifice the rigidity of your message when it makes for stronger outcomes. If a nonprofit is participating in a campaign being spearheaded by the funder, than the nonprofit should be prepared to have the funder’s messaging and marketing agenda take center stage, even if it doesn’t completely mesh with its own messaging. At the end of the day, if the campaign is a success – and strong marketing helped bolster that success – than the nonprofit will be thrilled to have been a part of it. If this doesn’t sit well with the nonprofit, than hopefully they would have recognized the issue early by following suggestion #1 above.

On a macro level, I doubt anyone can say the degree to which differing grantor-grantee messages have degraded net social benefit. But having seen marketing campaigns fall flat as a result of this dynamic, I can say with complete certainty that it’s a problem (a.k.a. an opportunity) – one that merits our collective thought and consideration.

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:

Philanthropy Daily Digest 10/13/2011

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Which Nonprofits Have Room For More Funding?

This is a guest post by Holden Karnofsky, the co-Executive Director of GiveWell. GiveWell finds outstanding charities to help donors decide where to give.

By Holden Karnofsky

holden headshotImagine that, as a donor, you’re considering the following pitch:

“For 12 years our campaign has delivered a proven preventive health measure. For the $23 million we’ve spent cumulatively, we’ve directly and demonstrably saved several million lives.”

If those claims checked out, and you found these accomplishments to resonate strongly with your values, would there be any reasons not to support this campaign with your donation? If you got this pitch today, there would be a big reason not to support it: the above describes the smallpox eradication campaign, which ended in 1979 as it became clear that it had achieved total success, with no smallpox cases left to prevent.

Donating today to smallpox eradication would clearly be silly, but it’s just an extreme version of what we believe many donors are doing: giving to causes and programs they believe in, without checking whether those programs need – and can use – more money.

In trying to find the best charities to recommend to donors, we’ve found that this question of how (and whether) a charity is going to use additional revenue (as opposed to the funds it’s already spent or budgeted) is one of the hardest questions to answer.

We call it the problem of room for more funding.

When money isn’t the bottleneck

There are several reasons that a charity may not use additional funds the same way it used past funds, or the same way as the donor hopes.

  • A successful program can rely on many factors besides money, such as skilled labor, political support, and (as in the case of smallpox) appropriate target populations whose problems are suited to the solutions being offered. For example, we have argued that the surgery charity Smile Train appears to have a shortage of skilled surgeons, not a shortage of funds, for its core program.
  • The programs donors want to fund don’t necessarily match the programs charities want to carry out. Thus, a charity may focus on one program in solicitations, when its intent is to use donations for another program or simply add them to reserves. We have seen charity representatives make explicit statements to this effect.
  • Charities may be able to execute different activities with an additional $20 million vs. an additional $1,000 – the total amount of additional funding they’re getting matters. For example, see our review of the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI).
Dealing with "room for more funding" as an individual donor

Understanding how your $100, or $10,000, affects a charity with a multimillion dollar budget is a challenge we’ve been struggling with for years. One answer we don’t think works is restricting/earmarking your donation. A charity can formally honor an earmark while effectively using your donation to fund other activities.

However, it does seem possible to answer this question using a very different method: requesting scenario analysis that asks how a charity’s activities would change at different levels of total unrestricted funding. This approach allows us to check back later and see the extent to which actual activities were in line with actual funding (and, if there is a discrepancy, to have a conversation about it).

Applying this approach has led us to much more concrete, and sometimes surprising, picture of charities’ room for more funding. For example, earlier this year we found that KIPP, a celebrated and GiveWell-recommended charity, has no short-term funding needs at the national level – but KIPP Houston has urgent needs.

We believe that this sort of scenario analysis can be practically, and relatively cheaply, produced by just about any charity. However, in practice we have found it very hard to get this sort of information because there doesn’t seem to be anyone else asking for it. We think that one of the most constructive things a broad-based charity accreditation service could do would be to push large numbers of charities to generate and share "room for more funding" analysis. For our part, we do this analysis for any charity that is a contender to become one of GiveWell’s top charities.

Dealing with "room for more funding" as a major grantmaker
One of the reasons that "room for more funding" is a relatively neglected topic is because it doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue for major funders. It may be difficult for an individual to understand the impact of their $100 or $10,000 – but a foundation able to commit $1 million up front can design and fund a project all on its own. However, we’ve lately been exploring (via GiveWell Labs) a giving style more similar to major grantmakers’, and at this early stage, we’re still finding the problem of "room for more funding" to be relevant. In brief,

  • We prefer to fund projects that are primarily designed and proposed by charities, rather than imposing our own strategy.
  • But with some of the stronger potential projects, we find ourselves wondering whether another funder would step in if we didn’t. By funding a strong project, are we causing it to happen, or merely saving another funder money that they’ll spend on other projects following their own priorities?

We have a lot of work to do in terms of understanding this issue, but it seems to us that "trying to fund what other funders won’t" can lead to some strange situations (for example, imagine two funders who each suspect the other of being interested in a project, and thus both hold out trying to see whether the other will fund it). Arguably the best philanthropist is not the one who funds the best projects – it’s the one who funds the best projects that wouldn’t get funded otherwise, and who therefore looks to a naïve outsider like a merely mediocre philanthropist.

An under-discussed issue

We feel that the issue of room for more funding is severely under-discussed and under-appreciated. If and when we can raise the issue’s profile, we expect to see a lot of progress on solutions for gaining clarity into a group’s room for more funding: helping people find the best next thing (instead of the best past thing) to fund.

Philanthropy Daily Digest 10/11/2011

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.