Tactical & Strategic Philanthropy at the Ford Foundation

I owe the Ford Foundation an apology.

As I’ve written about the distinction between tactical and strategic philanthropy over the last couple of years, I’ve always refrained from labeling any specific foundation as being strategic or non-tactical. This is because I realize that most foundations pursue a mix of approaches in their grantmaking and unless I’m prepared to do an in depth review of a foundation’s activities, it is inappropriate for me to label their activity from afar.

In my post from last week about the Ford Foundation’s excellent new website, I talked about the way that Ford’s “grantmaking visualizations” presented a strikingly different approach to grantmaking than did the “portfolio of current investments” that New Profit uses to present their approach. I stand by my opinion that Ford’s presentation of their grantmaking depicts a world view that seems to me to represent a strategic rather than a tactical approach to grantmaking. However, I should have limited my comments to my interpretation of the grantmaking visualizations and not gone so far as to label Ford’s actual approach to grantmaking.

Ford’s vice president of communications Marta Tellado, left the following comment on the post:

“It’s great to get this kind of feedback about our new Web site Sean. We’re delighted that it delivers more transparency to visitors about our grant making. As I recently wrote in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, clarity and transparency are our guiding goals, and we labored to help our audiences grasp the rationale driving our grants. We’re very pleased at the response we’re getting to this effort thus far.

I am not so sure however, that your interpretation of strategy versus tactics at Ford is on the mark. For a philanthropy of Ford’s scope and scale, this presents a false dichotomy. Over our nearly 75 years, we’ve had a long tradition of tactical innovations, seminal early funding to grow new organizations, solutions and strategies to address some of the most intractable social problems worldwide. Our tactical funding has yielded exceptional results, and we applaud the philanthropic partners and organizations we have worked with and continue to work with at this level. However, given our scale we believe we don’t have to make the tradeoff between strategic innovation and tactical action. We can do both in our efforts to foster positive social change…”

To be quite frank, I’ve never reviewed Ford’s 75 year history of grantmaking and I do know that Ford has indeed offered “seminal early funding to grow new organizations.” By labeling certain foundation’s as “tactical” and other’s as “strategic” I think I do a disservice by oversimplifying the complex approaches deployed by large foundations and encourage unneeded division in the field.

That being said, there are important distinctions between a tactical approach that focuses on providing growth capital to high performing nonprofits and a strategic approach which focuses on executing a foundation devised attempt at solving a problem. But in highlighting Ford’s and New Profit’s divergent approaches to presenting their grantmaking, I ended up painting an overly black and white picture.

I appreciate Ford’s willingness to engage me on this subject and I apologize for labeling their approach to grantmaking in an overly broad way.