Change Happens. Philanthropy in a Complex World

Align social initiatives with corporate objectives, and do well by doing good. Or so the theory goes. The practice of strategic philanthropy has taken hold over the last two decades, but it hasn’t exactly taken off as the catalyst for change so many, including social impact expert Mark Kramer, projected. According to Kramer, that’s because the conventional tools of strategic philanthropy – carefully selected, ambitious goals and rigorous measurement of outcomes – just don’t fit the realities of social change in a complex world.

Today’s toughest problems – such as improving population health – are complex; they’re dynamic, non-linear and counter-intuitive, and involve too many factors for fixed plans and goals, as Kramer asserts in the summer 2014 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR). Solving these urgent challenges requires funders to move beyond the prevailing predictive model to a more nuanced, flexible approach that allows for “as you go” calibrations and course corrections.

An idea well established in other fields, this emergent model of strategy is rarely invoked in philanthropy. But its implication, and potential, for helping evolve the future of strategic philanthropy to be more in sync with how social change happens is substantial.

As Kramer – a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and co-founder of the nonprofit consulting firm FSG – and his coauthors and FSG colleagues John Kania and Patty Russell explain in their SSIR article, “Philanthropy for a Complex World”: “Emergent strategy does not attempt to oversimplify complex problems, nor does it lead to a ‘magic bullet’ solution that can be scaled up. Instead, it gives rise to constantly evolving solutions that are uniquely suited to the time, place, and participants involved. It helps funders to be more relevant and effective by adapting their activities to ever-changing circumstances and engaging others as partners without the illusion of control.”

Dealing with complexity is complex, and it’s not for everyone. Many foundations do, and can continue to do, a great deal of good using the traditional tools of strategic philanthropy to address critical simple (improving teacher performance) and complicated (scientific advances, such as AIDS treatment) problems. But those committed to tackling the complexity of social change require a new set of tools, leadership with a tolerance for uncertainty, and the determination to pursue their objectives for the long-term. To succeed in their shift to emergent strategy, they must:

  • Co-create and co-evolve strategy among multiple organizations;
  • Build relational trust between organizations and individuals, and
  • Improve system fitness.

The most important thing foundations can do is influence change at a systemic level, Kramer urges. “That is why we keep searching for new ways to help…address social issues more effectively.”

Stern Strategy Group: