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!

7 Comments

  1. Brian Walsh says:

    Sean, thank you for your years of thoughtful and constructive analysis and wisdom. Your words and ideas – and the words and ideas you curated on this site from other voices – have had a tremendous impact on my own thinking about the social sector. I remain with you committed to the goal of a flourishing social sector – successfully working alongside the public and private sectors – equipped with the knowledge, insights, strategies, and tools to effectively address the challenges of our time. While we will not have the advantage of your voice active in the conversations to come, through this blog you have left a lasting legacy.

  2. Marc Baizman says:

    Sean,

    Your thoughts and reflections on philanthropic approaches were a welcome change from the status quo and made many of us into “tactical” converts. :) Also, speaking as the former co-chair of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, Boston Chapter, it was great to have a younger voice in the room, especially in a field that does not traditionally welcome young people and/or “thinking different.”. Thanks for everything, and good luck with the next chapter!

  3. Thanks so much Brian and Marc. It has been incredibly humbling and gratifying to read the many messages like your own I received when I announced my sabbatical and then in the past few days. Thanks for letting me know that my blog made a difference for you.

  4. Sean, thank you for all of thought and insight that you have brought to the philanthropic world over the years. We at GuideStar will truly miss your blog – but your legacy will live on. We wish you much success and happiness as you dive into the next chapter of your life!

  5. I have appreciated your insights and alternative perspective, Sean. You’ve made a real contribution to the philanthropy dialogue.

    You have my good wishes.

  6. We are sorry to see you go, we too felt that you leant a voice with a different perspective to the norm to many discussions of philanthropy. We wish you as much success and more with your next venture.

  7. Tim S says:

    It’s great to see someone so dedicated to giving back and so eager to share. I sure you will continue to contribute to the betterment of the world, even if you’re not writing about it on here.

    Good luck with all you do.