Strategic vs Tactical Philanthropy

The best thing I read this week was Sean Stannard-Stockton‘s blog post, “An Investment Approach to Philanthropy.” In it, he articulated a favorite theme of his — strategic versus tactical philanthropy — in a way that felt very clear to me.

Here’s my two line summary:

  • Strategic philanthropy is about trying to solve social problems
  • Tactical philanthropy is about investing in organizations trying to solve social problems

Sean was trying to articulate the difference between the two approaches without passing a value judgement, a tough proposition considering the name of his blog — “Tactical Philanthropy.” I think many of the folks who commented on his post got caught up in that, which is too bad, because they’re missing out on a very provocative question:

Is it possible to do both effectively?

Sean states that the competencies required to do these things are very different, and he suggests that it is very hard (but not necessarily impossible) to do both effectively. I’m not sure why people would find this such a troubling proposition. It seems to me that this insight helps unravel a number of fundamental tensions that institutional philanthropy often faces.

One of those is around leadership. Foundations want to empower other leaders, but in doing so — through convenings, through research, through hiring very smart people — they often become leaders themselves. What follows is this awkward dance where foundations either avoid exerting their own leadership for fear of overpowering those they’re trying to empower, or they exert their leadership too strongly, unintentionally reinforcing a power dynamic that is very hard to circumvent.

Choosing to focus on either strategic or tactical philanthropy, but not both, could potentially resolve these tensions. For example, a funder could decide to focus exclusively on creating systemic, network-oriented change by funding convenings and research and not investing in organizations. That would allow those foundations to establish more open, authentic partnerships with people who might otherwise be depending on those same foundations for their livelihood and are behaving accordingly.

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