The Ford Foundation’s Visualizations & Tactical vs. Strategic Philanthropy

Arrows The Ford Foundation has rolled out an excellent new website. The whole design is intuitive and helpful, but I especially appreciate their “grantmaking visualizations.”

The grantmaking visualizations make clear the connections between the Foundation’s grants and their overall strategy. You can start at the Issue level, drill down to Ford’s Initiatives in each issue area, and then drill down to the Goal and Approaches they’re taking within each Initiatives and finally see the Grants they’ve made within each Approach.

This process allows you to understand the connections between Ford’s high level issue areas and the grants they actually make. An example: one of Ford’s issue areas is “Economic Fairness,” within which one of their initiatives is “Ensuring good jobs and access to service.” Their goal for this initiative is “To help low-wage working families achieve economic self-sufficiency.” One of the approaches they take is “Advocacy, litigation and reform.” To that end they make grants to the National Women’s Law Center and the Center for Law and Social Policy.

I think this layout does an excellent job of helping website visitors get a handle on understanding Ford’s grantmaking.

It also helps illustrate the difference between the strategic philanthropy approach of Ford vs the tactical philanthropy approach of New Profit and similar grantmakers. While Ford views their grantees as the final, executable step in their planning process, Issue –> Initiative –> Goal –> Approach –> Grantee, New Profit’s explanation of the grants starts with the grantee. New Profit’s “grantmaking visualization” is their “portfolio,” which they describe as their “current investments.”

The question for grantmakers becomes what do they put at the “center of their universe”? Their initiatives or their grantees? I believe that a tactical approach in which the funder focuses on finding and funding high performing, high impact organizations is more likely to result in impact than a process which starts with the funder planned initiative and views the grantee as the entity which executes the funders strategy.

A frequent critique of my position is that focusing solely on funding grantee, means that funders miss out on deploying the non-grantmaking strategies available to them (advocacy, convening, facilitating collaboration, etc). However, I do think these non-grantmaking activities are important and powerful. In addition to New Profit’s portfolio of grantees, they deploy their “action tank” to improve the ecosystem within which their grantee operate. From New Profit’s website:

“We believe that the impact any single organization can have on education, workforce development, public health, or poverty—while real and meaningful—is limited, and will never be enough to fix our broken systems and truly transform our society. For this reason, in 2004 we began to develop the idea for an "Action Tank"—a group within New Profit that works beyond the bounds of individual organizations to reshape our institutions and more effectively allocate resources for problem solving.”

However, New Profit’s Action Tank is focused on creating and sustaining an environment within which great nonprofit organizations can thrive, while the typical strategic philanthropy funder focuses on developing the initiatives, goals and approaches that they believe are most likely to succeed (a process that a tactical philanthropist believes is best developed by their grantees).

This difference was illustrated extremely well in a Stanford Social Innovation Review post by Amy Sample Ward where she used the difference between gardening and landscaping as an example:

The Gardener creates an ecosystem open to change, available to new groups, and full of fresh opportunities to emerge naturally.  The approach is focused on organic collaboration and growth for the entire community.  The gardener is simply there to help, cultivate, and clear the weeds if/when they poke up.

The Landscaper creates an ecosystem that matches a preconceived design or pattern.  The approach is focused on executing a preconceived environment, regardless of how natural or organic it may be for the larger area.  The landscaper is there to ensure that everything stays just as planned.

Regardless of the approach a funder takes, it is important that they fully understand and can describe the reasoning behind their grantmaking. I think the Ford Foundation’s new website does a truly excellent job of explaining their thinking and I would love to see their “grantmaking illustration” become standard for other large strategic foundations.

[Note: My comments regarding New Profit are my interpretation of their activities and New Profit does not use the term “tactical philanthropy” to describe their grantmaking. However, in my conversations with New Profit employees, they have said their are in general agreement with my writings on this subject.]


  1. Sean — I think you’ve made a huge contribution to the discussion with this post and I thank you for it. It makes crystal clear the distinction between what I’ve called “grantmaking” (tactical philanthropy) and “changemaking” (strategic philanthropy). That can only help the discussion and development of the ‘professional’ philanthropist’s role in society.

    I’ve been grappling in my own work with donors of ‘ limited’ giving capacity — relatively speaking — that is, non-foundation and non-institutional funders). This group, after all, comprises the largest segment of the contributions pool.

    Because this group of philanthropists requires (explicitly or implicitly) a “personal satisfaction” return as well as (hopefully) a social investment return (in the best cases), I’ve been advocating a hybrid approach intended to express both the personal worldview and the social intent of the philanthropist as effectively as possible.

    There will always be those donors who are committed to providing viagra to homeless men (believing, as they do, that sexual expression is a human right and necessity that should not be denied due to lack of access to modern pharmaceuticals), or funding poodle care (because they make superb guide and assistance dogs for those with dog allergies).

    Such donors operate in a sphere of philanthropy that is quite apart from that of the very highly-capitalized funders for whom the black and white of strategic vs. tactical philanthropy (devoid of the “uniquely personal satisfaction” component) makes profound sense.

    I only wish that the thinkers of our sector took greater notice of and involvement with the “common” HNW (and not-so-HNW) givers who make the charity (vs. philanthropy) world keep spinning. That is the only way, I believe, that the contributed wealth of this country (and the globe) will ultimately make the world a better and more just place for humankind.

    Again, Sean, I believe you’ve done our sector a great service with this post in defining language that I will now be much more comfortable incorporating in my own discussions and work with non-institutional funders. Thank you!

  2. Thanks Renata,
    As you know I work with individual donors as well. I would argue that both “institutions” and individuals seek a “personal return” although the language is different. While “personal” return can suggest a selfish need to get something, it is also simply a rationale expectation that acts of generosity will make the donor feel good.

    When I discuss tactical vs strategic, I admit that I leave off a discussion of emotions. I wish I was better at discussing the emotional motivations of giving. But I certainly recognize their importance and work with clients on these issues every day.

  3. As a gross generalization, I’d argue that in larger, more established funding institutions, personal interests (and whims) are far less likely to be the motivating “inspiration” for setting a course of contributions. And due to their stated charitable intent, regulatory oversight, and public visibility (if not accountability), large institutional funders are less likely to be moved to fund the narrow personal interests (or vanities) of any one individual involved with the institution.

    There is no such pressure or requirement for individual donors or closely-controlled family foundations, for example, to reach for greater social return from their gifts.

    There are certainly many examples of exceptions to this generalization. But there is only an infinitesimal number of donors that are reached by advisors such as yourself or myself. And yet the non-institutional donor pool provides the majority of capital invested in philanthropy.

    I am curious as to why so few of us are involved in strengthening the sector (for lack of a better descriptor) by focusing on the workings and potential of the majority of donors. I appreciate the intense work on maximizing the impact of the foundation sector, but in the bigger scheme of things, I worry that it is a bit akin to navel-gazing — while dismissing the brains, heart, hands, fee, and reproductive organs of the philanthropic body politic.

    My intent is to provoke, not to insult — please forgive if it seems otherwise.

  4. I think it is just a question of market maturation. Most markets start by serving the “head” of the market (the biggest players) and then move to serving smaller and smaller customers.

    The phrase “the second great wave of philanthropy” is all about the massive shift that occurs as we see the shift towards the “long tail” of giving.

  5. 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.

    As for our new site, it presents a simple but clear picture of the activities that many of our grantees are undertaking to address the very complex issues that are at the heart of our mission. The organizations we support are on the frontlines of social change around the world. Our continual engagement with these visionary people and institutions is precisely what shapes and renews our grant-making strategies over time. In other words, the existing and emerging organizations that receive our grant support (as well as many others that don’t) are not the endpoint of our strategic thinking, they are the starting point of a very dynamic enterprise.

    So much of how the Ford Foundation pursues its mission is a reflection of this ethic – from our 10 field offices on the ground in regions around the world, to our extensive convening’s in all our areas of work, to our deep tradition of providing core support for new organizations and networks. All of these characteristics help us stay connected to the people who are closest to the problems and who generate the most creative thinking.

    Thanks for heralding our new grant making visualizations and for encouraging us and all philanthropies to be even clearer about how we work, how our decisions are shaped, and what we’re learning from the creative and courageous organizations we work with.

    Marta L. Tellado
    Vice President, Communications
    Ford Foundation

    • Marta,
      You’ve raised an important issue. As you and I have discussed via email, I’ll be publishing a response to your comment on Tuesday (or possibly Wednesday). Thanks so much sharing your thoughts!

  6. Sean,

    I stumbled across these posts today via your twitter feed, and am wanting to shout out a big thanks to you for categorizing philanthropy in strategic vs tactical terms. Maybe (probably) I haven’t been paying attention, but this helps me understand that what we’ve been trying to achieve all along at our mid-sized foundation is a tactical approach. Your post was an a-ha moment for me…

    I see great value in both approaches, but one must choose a path. We start by considering grantees as partners, assuming that they – not we – have the expertise and wisdom to impact their world in better ways than we could. Our expertise is grantmaking; theirs is social change. We need them even more than they need us to accomplish our missions. We are small enough that we can’t staff for the changemaking potential of larger foundations … kudos to those who can and do, like Ford. But we’re content to do good grantmaking.

    Thanks again. I’ll try to pay better attention in the future.

  7. Thanks so much Mark. It is really nice to hear that how I’ve laid how tactical vs strategic resonates with you.