Adaptive Philanthropy

This is a guest post by Susan Wolf Ditkoff, a partner at Bridgespan and co-leader of the firm’s philanthropy practice. Susan also writes Bridgespan’s Give Smart blog.

By Susan Wolf Ditkoff

Susan Wolf DitkoffDecisions in philanthropy are sometimes painted in terms of false dichotomies – either you’re thoughtful and strategic, or you’re whimsical and opportunistic. But in today’s rapidly-changing world, it’s hard to justify planning that is overly linear and time-consuming – spending years analyzing reams of data and writing lengthy planning reports, and then executing that plan for 3-5 years before asking whether it’s working.

For instance, last Monday the Chronicle of Philanthropy featured the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation’s approval of a critically-important, time-sensitive, grant that will track radioactive material in the oceans around Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactor. While unsurprising that an environmentally-focused foundation funded an environmentally-focused nonprofit to the tune of $3.7 million, the foundation’s speed and agility in this instance was remarkable.

Within a few short weeks, the benefactor (Gordon Moore), the CEO (Steve McCormick), and Chief Program Officer for Science (Vicki Chandler) all agreed to “pounce on an opportunity” identified by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution – before it was literally too late to take the necessary measurements. And they did so while in no way lowering their standards – the Chronicle reports that Moore “grilled the grantee” with questions, identified and mitigated risks along the way, and engaged in an internal debate before deciding to approve the funds. The grant stands out as an excellent example of philanthropy that will make an extraordinary and unique contribution – by being both highly strategic and highly adaptive at the same time.

The world we live in now demands a more adaptive approach to strategy. More rapid prototyping of ideas and their execution. More mistakes when they’re still quick and cheap. More calculated risks and contingencies. Less cumbersome cycle-times for decision-making. Less argument about “who holds the pen” when writing the strategy (the philanthropist or the nonprofit) and more real-time adaptation and collaboration by all parties. Less emphasis on correctly predicting the future, and more emphasis on clear assumptions and the agility to adapt in light of new information and opportunities.

The level of uncertainty is now such that strategies can feel stale as soon as the (virtual) ink is dry. Which means that tools like scenario analysis, collaborative models, and decision-trees become far more useful strategically than a thorough but static approach. At Bridgespan, we’re often asked to help philanthropists and nonprofits think strategically, and we’re finding such tools are more critical than ever.

In other words: if not much is knowable, don’t over plan.

I’m intrigued by the questions that adaptive philanthropists are asking. For example, an adaptive strategy requires clear but flexible definitions of what success looks like, for whom, and what is known or assumed about the problem – but not a rigid roadmap of how to solve it. An adaptive strategy articulates clear criteria and a screening process for what will and won’t get funded (guardrails if you will) that help philanthropists quickly assess and decide among emerging opportunities – without succumbing to random opportunism or mission drift.

In other words, philanthropists with adaptive strategies have clear goals and criteria, but don’t pretend to know all the answers. They are nimble decision-makers, and don’t treat others (co-funders, grantees, beneficiaries) like vendors whose role is to simply execute in a desired fashion. They are open to new ideas wherever they may come from. They save some gas in the tank (if one is still allowed that metaphor) for opportunities that arise outside their walls – and perhaps the more unknowable the context, the more gas you need to keep in reserve. They communicate clear desires for all stakeholders to bring new ideas into the conversation. And above all, they demonstrate a clear and passionate commitment to continuous improvement, and impose on themselves the discipline of adapting and getting better over time.

While some of these ideas aren’t new, it’s still striking how few philanthropists (especially institutions) are actually set up to respond with adaptive strategies. Perhaps the increased pressure for performance is leading to the misguided belief that everything can be knowable and known in advance – a sure recipe for disaster.

So I’m curious – what adaptive strategies have you seen? Or has fear of acting trumped taking a risk? It seems that one thing is definitely changing: the key question is not just whether your strategy is “right,” but is it also adaptive?

One Comment

  1. Debra Jacobs says:

    Thanks to the unfettered charter of The Patterson Foundation, we demonstrate “organic intentionality” with strategic communications, technology, financial thrivability and learning value add to our partnerships.

    Including building new fundraising models with the Arthritis Foundation Florida or creating new paradigms with University of South Florida in how families manage chronic disease, particularly Type I diabetes.

    Our Collaborative Restructuring initiative begins with the premise that quality explorations must have impartial trained facilitators and we are building a cadre of professionals regionally working in collaboration with other foundations.

    Adaptive philanthropy – we live it!