The Professional's Guide to Strategic Philanthropy
Cliff Note 1: Deciding "What" To Do
Lost Already? It's not really your fault. The single most important step in strategic philanthropy, and the one with the greatest long-term effect, is the decision of "What To Do". Don't blanch if I use the word "Mission". In spite of its importance, the mission is often written in vague, poetic, sweeping language because generations of executives have been wrongly taught by business schools that the mission of an organization is a quasi-permanent, essentially immutable declaration of purpose. As a result, this vital guiding statement is given scant attention during the strategic planning process in most established organizations in favor of jumping straight into the details.
Things Change It is true that the mission changes less frequently than very detailed quarterly action steps. However, it is untrue that it should be static and it is unwise in a dynamic environment to think that it should be. Consequently, many grants issued by foundations are less effective than they could be because of this unwarranted inflexibility combined with vague, even beguiling terms.
What About Donor Intent? Sometimes called "donor intent", the mission of a private foundation should not be fixed in perpetuity simply because the organization itself is perpetual or because of a long-departed donor. It seems obvious that the problems being confronted by a perpetual organization should not be confined to outdated assumptions from its distant past. Founders may operate with only a superficial understanding of tomorrow's issues that influence the problem they have chosen to solve or how to measure its causes, scope, and complexity. This is where founders get derailed and many of them never regain their forward momentum. Consequently, even after years of grantmaking, many funders are unable to determine if they have made any lasting progress.
Perpetuity Is A Long Time
Most private foundations, unlike their founders, will be around forever. What happens to the foundation if it achieves all of the goals established by its founder? Founders rarely thought about the role of the foundation once it achieved the purpose for which it was created. Thus, they often chose impossible-to-measure, overly broad missions. I propose that a more appropriate mission designed for a perpetual-life organization favors the adoption of a mission that is relatively "temporary" and more responsive to external conditions.
Measure Your Results! Finally, foundations should take the time and make the effort to carefully define their mission in measureable, clear terms. Armed with a precise mission or statement of purpose, grantmakers can focus their efforts. A clear mission also provides a defensive barrier to protect against "mission drift". Alfred P. Sloan (science & technology) and Robert Wood Johnson (health) serve as striking examples of donors who forcefully imbedded a clear focus in their missions and thus prevented future generations of leaders from watering down their intentions. But, they left enough flexibility to move through time and still stay relevant.
It's a lot of hard work to answer the "What to Do" question. But in this cliff note version, we don't have room to explore all of the steps involved. You need to buy my book to read all of the details. It is sufficient for now to underscore the critical nature of answering this question. Look for more cliff note reviews of the remaining six principles of strategic thinking in future editions.
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