Defining Tactical Philanthropy

This post is part one of a three part series on defining the phrase Tactical Philanthropy.

Read Part II
Read Part III

After the 2007 Council on Foundations conference, readership of this blog took off and broaden to include nonprofit professionals, foundation professionals, major donors, communications and social media experts, college students and many others. What was exciting for me was that the blog began to transition from my own daily diary to a platform for debate.

As that transition got going, what this blog and indeed what the phrase “tactical philanthropy” came to mean became a function of the Tactical Philanthropy community. One of the most frequent questions I get about the blog is how I decide what to write about every day. While in the beginning I use to keep a list of potential topics, over time I realized that I wasn’t the one setting the agenda. Like some sort of philanthropic soap opera, the characters, storylines and subplots of this blog have taken on a life of their own (anyone remember FORGE?). The subtitle of this blog is “Chronicling the Second Great Wave of Philanthropy.” As a “chronicler,” I get an opportunity to frame stories and present them from my personal viewpoint, but at the end of the day the events and ideas we discuss are outside of my control.

Take the recent debate over high performance vs. high impact. I wrote the first post as a simple reflection on a meeting I had attended. But the 40+ comments that poured in took hold of the blog narrative and required that the debate continue. When readers like David Hunter took extreme issue with my point of view, I didn’t really have any choice but to highlight their comments. To do otherwise would have been to ignore reality and fall down on the job of chronicling.

But while I’m chronicling philanthropy, I’m doing it through the frame of “tactical philanthropy.” To me, the phrase has come to refer to an approach to philanthropy that focuses on the practice of philanthropy itself rather than on social change. What this means in practice is that here we talk about spreading ideas, ways to evaluate nonprofits, the financial engineering of philanthropy, styles of giving, measuring impact, grantmaking tools, the affect of technology and transparency. These are all “about philanthropy” rather than “about social change.”

When I coined the phrase Tactical Philanthropy, I did so while noting that if Strategic Philanthropy existed, then by definition so must Tactical Philanthropy. When I first offered what I now think of as a narrow definition of Tactical Philanthropy, I stated that it was about the implementation of a strategic plan. But today, I think that Tactical Philanthropy is a fundamentally different frame of reference than Strategic Philanthropy. It is not at odds with Strategic Philanthropy, but the tactical philanthropist focuses on an entirely different set of questions than the strategic philanthropist does.

Tomorrow I’ll look at the differences between Strategic Philanthropy and Tactical Philanthropy.

Read Part II
Read Part III


  1. Aaron Stiner says:


    I think it’s great that you are reflecting and critiquing your own work and examining your view points and motivations. I think that is extremely healthy. It’s certainly modeling a best practice for philanthropists, nonprofits and social media users.

    Where does the discussion of the very personal nature of philanthropy fit in? For example, how decisions are made, what influences people to give to a particular cause, how do they work with their families in their philanthropic decisions, etc.


  2. Thanks Aaron,
    I would argue that the personal nature of philanthropy is an element of tactical philanthropy since tactical philanthropy focuses on the practice of philanthropy. If you are trying to achieve some sort of “best practice” of philanthropy, I think it must honor the role of the expressive element (the “personal” side) of philanthropy. I wrote about this issue in a column for the Chronicle of Philanthropy recently.

  3. GREAT post, Sean! Very commendable introspection, a lesson for all of us as the conversations change around philanthropy as the sector evolves. I look forward, very much, to your continued posts in this vein. Thanks for all of the great insights!

  4. Thanks Marcia, I appreciate the support. I’ve worried a little that my recent posts might be boring because they are “about me”. But this blog is a way for me to learn, so I felt I had to write them. Glad to know they are resonating with people.

  5. Thanks for this clarification, Sean. Very helpful to understand you’re focusing on the practice of philanthropy itself (which is more our focus at Bolder Giving, too) than on the social change outcome. Though of course, they are intimately related. I imagine it’s quite a juggling act to decide what to focus on day-by-day — especially with the volume of responses. Thanks for all you do for this field.

  6. Thanks Anne. So glad to know you’re reading along. They are intimately connected, but focusing on one vs the other requires different expertise and importantly drive very different conversations.