Opinion

How “strategic philanthropy” has harmed our sector, and why it refuses to die

Written by Vu Le

Remember that couple that did a gender reveal party earlier this year and ended up starting a wildfire that lasted two months and burned down 22,000 acres? Gender reveals are ridiculous, corny, and harmful. I don’t think aliens are going to give us advanced technology as long as we keep doing inane things like this.

But what does this have to do with anything? We’ll get there. A long time ago, before Omicron, before Delta, before the original variant, I met with a foundation program officer for coffee. “We’re in a process to figure out our strategic funding priorities this year,” they said, “what are your thoughts on this?” I took a long sip of my hot cocoa, trying to figure out how to sound diplomatic. But I have no poker face and probably looked like this cat.

The idea that funders and donors should be “strategic” in what and how they fund has been deeply ingrained into our sector. And it seems to make sense. I mean, we wouldn’t want foundations to just willy-nilly throw spaghetti at the wall, hoping that something might work, right? To be strategic is to be smart, to have a plan and a path and a clear rationale in order to avoid perceptions of incompetence, arbitrary whims, or favoritism.

Unfortunately, like many other widely accepted philosophies in our sector, “strategic philanthropy” has done significant harm to the sector. So much so, that the people who unleashed this concept on the field have written apologies, like this one “Why I Regret Pushing Strategic Philanthropy”:

“I did not properly anticipate the potential side effects of this concept, and some of them are nasty indeed […] a major challenge for strategic philanthropy is that it can create delusions of omniscience in many program officers. Instead of reviewing grant proposals, querying experts, synthesizing ideas, and respecting those with years in the field, many program directors and officers become auteurs: They begin to see themselves as the origin of intelligence as well as the arbiters of money.”

In the article, author Hal Harvey points out several examples of the toxic ways foundations’ being “strategic” has derailed nonprofits’ work. Funders who used to give out general operating funds now becoming restrictive and prescriptive. Funders forcing nonprofits to change their strategies, often with unsurprisingly terrible results. How can it be a good idea to let funders and donors drive strategies and priorities? As Harvey says, “Program officers simply do not have the experience, the relationships, or the close contact with subjects that grantees do.”

“Strategic philanthropy” is pervasive and manifests in myriad ways. Foundations determining priorities—“this year, we’re focused on early learning and youth development, we are no longer focused on mental health or climate change”—and asking nonprofits to explain in grant proposals how they “align” with these strategies. Funders creating some sort of model for capacity building or leadership that they inflict on nonprofits and ignore (or are completely unable to register) any feedback that that model is completely useless if not detrimental. One time, at a conference, I heard from a tech-based philanthropist who was enamored with the idea of an app to solve homelessness.

Like gender reveal parties, the concept of strategic philanthropy persists despite its own originators’ speaking out against it. It has taken on a life of its own. It has become so widely accepted now that many of the most down-to-earth, equity-focused funders, donors, and even nonprofit leaders I know simply accept it as par for the course. They cannot imagine a different reality, a reality where people and institutions with wealth DO NOT determine priorities or strategies, but instead follow the lead of the people and communities most affected by systemic injustice. And thus, we are at risk of more wildfires from gender reveal parties, and our sector continues being harmed by funders’ insistence on being “strategic.”

But, if we are to create a just and equitable world, we must operate differently. To do that, those with wealth and power—donors, foundation staff, foundation board trustees, etc.—must understand and accept these honest truths that are probably going to hurt some feelings:

Unless you have recent lived experience with poverty, racism, etc., you and your foundation/family are the LEAST knowledgeable people in our entire sector. You have plenty of knowledge in whatever areas made you successful, but little if any of it translates to the work of addressing inequity. Your position as the CEO, board trustee, or staff of a foundation does not in any way give you an instant boost in knowledge, and your assumption that it does has been really destructive to our field, because your positional power means that other people have no choice but to waste time and energy following your uninformed strategies.

Your grantees have been lying to you. A lot. Because you have money and we need it, so we say stuff that you want to hear and refraining from saying things we think might hurt your feelings and jeopardize our funding from you. The power dynamics are such that no matter how open you are in soliciting feedback, and no matter how great your relationships with grantees or potential grantees are, it’s challenging for nonprofits to ever really be completely honest. So when we say that “innovative” model/priority/strategy your foundation is implementing is great, that’s usually not completely true. Or even a little true.

Your grantees often don’t care about your strategies, or your models, or your toolkits. In fact, sometimes the things you’re proposing are horrible and we go to happy hour or text one another late at night to trash talk your ideas. Unless you’ve had lived experience or have spent significant time doing the painful work of listening to communities, most of your ideas are based on your own ego and self-reinforcing biases, and they generate cycles of delusion and self-indulgence where you keep pumping money to make them work while avoiding or ignoring community input.

Your privilege and need to be special have warped your perceptions of reality: There are racial and gender elements to this problem. The people with the most privilege and power in philanthropy are white, especially white men, who come from Western, individualistic society where being unique and special is highly desired. You are conditioned to think of yourselves as leaders, and leaders are supposed to carve their own path and generate unique solutions, etc. Why just listen and follow the lead of the people who are most affected by injustice, when you and your foundation can be “strategic” and be perceived as smart and special? This thinking has screwed nonprofits and harmed communities.

The idea that funders or donors should be “strategic” in their philanthropy should die. Foundations need to stop asking on grant applications how nonprofits can “align” with their priorities. The vast majority of funders and donors should not be setting any strategies or priorities at allIt makes no sense that the people with the most money and privilege but the LEAST knowledge and proximity to the issues should be setting priorities or advancing strategies that nonprofits should follow.

Of course, like with everything, there are exceptions. There are funders and donors whose strategies, priorities, and recommendations are great, usually because they closely align with and take lead from community, are grounded in equity, and they have staff and board members who have lived experience with injustice. But have an honest reflection about whether you are one of these exceptions, or whether you just think you are.

If we are to build a just and inclusive world, those with wealth and power must mitigate their need to appear smart and special, acknowledge that they don’t have the moral authority to set priorities, accept that their role is to ensure that the people and communities most affected by systemic injustice have the resources and autonomy to lead, give Multi-Year General Operating Dollars (MYGOD), and otherwise get out of the way.

And while we’re at it, let’s all agree to stop having or attending gender reveal parties, deal?

About the author

Vu Le