Expert Q & A: Strategic, Emergent, or (fill in the blank) Philanthropy: What’s the Right Approach?

By Dara Major, Principal, Dara Major Philanthropy Consulting

Over the last century or so of philanthropic practice, multiple pathways for achieving results have emerged. Two of the most widely adopted  (and most recently debated) are “strategic” and “emergent” philanthropy. Both have deep roots in the field, as well as a range of adherents and even skeptics. Other approaches in various stages of experimentation, adoption, or rejection include “philanthrocapitalism,” and “venture,” “catalytic,” and “high engagement” philanthropy.

What’s a grantmaker to do? Which approach, hybrid, or combination of approaches is right for you/ your program or initiative / your organization? How can I make sense of established and emerging approaches in philanthropy?

A good place to start is by considering the fundamental questions that every grantmaker must grapple with – questions that can guide your choice of approaches, and also position you to spot opportunities to innovate around not only best practice but next practice.

To help cut through the rhetoric and identify the right pathway to results in the specific context of your work, it’s important to consider the following:

  1. What are your goals, and what is your specific time horizon for achieving results? Your goal might be to provide general operating support to a community-based organization in order to strengthen its operations. Or your goal might be to mobilize a global network to eradicate malaria. Either way, what are you hoping to achieve and when?
  2. What’s the current state of development and capacity in the field in which you are working: is there a robust ecosystem of ideas, institutions, and potential allies? Or are you working in or seeking to develop a new idea, practice, or emerging field? Why and how will your efforts advance the state of knowledge or practice?
  3. When and how could engaging beneficiaries, stakeholders, and allies – in designing as well as implementing the work – add value and strengthen your efforts? Check out Grantmakers for Effective Organization’s (GEO) action guide Do Nothing About Me Without Me for tools on assessing the value of and engaging stakeholders.
  4. Is there an existing evidence base to help inform your decision-making? What will you do to tap into it, and when?
  5. When it comes to implementation, what barriers, challenges, and opportunities will you need to address? What will be beyond your control or sphere of influence?
  6. Is there potential to scale the effort over time – and if so, are there ways to bake that into the DNA of your effort now? Check out GEO’s Scaling What Works briefing paper series on scaling social impact (full disclosure: I’m the lead author).
  7. What level of resources are you able and willing to commit – and are these resources reasonably sufficient to the task? Research from the Center for Effective Philanthropy has found that the majority of grantees of large foundations receive no support beyond monetary grants; among those that do receive additional types of assistance, only comprehensive and/or field-focused support was described as meaningful and valued by grantees.
  8. What do you need to know, learn and do – at the beginning, middle and end of your grant or initiative? Who can provide you with the support you need at various stages of your work, either within or outside of your organization?  Now consider these questions from the point of view of your grantees: what are your grantees telling you they need to know, learn and do – and what support does it make sense for you to provide?.

Though there are no simple answers, by addressing the above questions – in the specific context of your own work – you will be much better positioned to navigate and make choices about which grantmaking approach or collection of approaches will be most effective.

Content Partner: LearnPhilanthropy

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2018 -- updated from original post in 2014

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Dara Major



Strategic Philanthropy
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