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Strategic Philanthropy and the Bush Foundation

July 24, 2008

Bushfdn_logoThe announcement yesterday by the St. Paul-based Bush Foundation reminded me of a session I attended at the 2008 Philanthropy Summit (the name given to this year's all-in-one Council on Foundation's conference). The session, "Strategic Philanthropy: Theory and Practice," featured Paul Brest, president and CEO of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and was based on Brest and Hal Harvey's forthcoming book Money Well Spent: A Strategic Guide to Smart Philanthropy.

In the session, Brest presented what he called the "essential tenets" of strategic philanthropy:

  • It starts with clearly defined goals; the more specific the goals, the greater the risk of failure;
  • Goals can change over time;
  • It must be based on theory -- in philanthropy, called a "theory of change";
  • If your theory of change is wrong, your philanthropic intervention is not going to succeed;
  • Tracking progress toward outcomes is critically important;
  • Mid-course corrections are part and parcel of any effective philanthropic intervention;
  • Publicly stating your goals and sharing information about successes and failures is critically important ("One of the reasons there is so little information about the unintended or unanticipated consequences of philanthropic interventions is that there are so few foundations -- let alone philanthropists -- that talk about what they hope to accomplish").

Or as he and Harvey put it in their book (I have an advance copy):

"[Philanthropy] is difficult work not just because social change is the product of a large variety of forces that are hard to identify, much less affect with any certainty, but because, unlike the financial returns of a business or even the electoral returns in politics, philanthropy has no common measure of success. Philanthropy is a field with poor feedback and messy signals -- and those signals are often distorted by the pervasive flattery that colors many transactions in the money-giving business.

"All of this means that accomplishing philanthropic goals requires having great clarity about what those goals are and specifying indicators of success before beginning a philanthropic project. It requires designing and then implementing a plan commensurate with the resources committed to it. This, in turn, requires an empirical, evidenced-based understanding of the external world in which the plan will operate. And it requires attending carefully to milestones to determine whether you are on the path to success, with a keen eye for signals that call for mid-course corrections. These factors are the necessary parts of what we regard as the essential core of strategic philanthropy -- the concern with impact..."

Although Bush Foundation president Peter Hutchinson and his board have been engaged in conversations about the foundation's programs and future direction since 2006, you'd think, reading yesterday's announcement, that they had an advance copy of Brest's book as well. "As we looked to the future," Hutchinson says, "we concluded that we needed to focus our energies in order to have even greater impact....In everything we do we want to foster leadership, continually build on the knowledge we gain, and choose activities that have a high potential to make a significant impact."

To that end, the foundation has chosen three goals that it intends to pursue for at least the next decade:

Develop Courageous Leaders and Engage Entire Communities in Solving Problems -- with a goal that by 2018, 75 percent of people in all demographic groups in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota say their community is effective at solving problems and improving their quality of life.

Support the Self-Determination of Native Nations -- with a goal that by 2018, all 23 Native nations in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota are exercising self-determination and actively rebuilding the infrastructure of nationhood.

Increase Educational Achievement -- with a goal that by 2018 the percentage of students in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota, from pre-kindergarten through college, who are on track to earn a degree after high school increases 50 percent and disparities among diverse student groups are eliminated.

Clear. Specific. Measurable. Risky. Although, as Paul Brest might say, the potential payoff more than justifies the risk.

We'll be watching with great interest as the foundation pursues its ambitious goals and, along the way, communicates its successes, failures, and lessons learned. As we noted here, Hutchinson and Bush Foundation board chair Kathy Tunheim will discuss the foundation's strategic planning process and future direction during a live Webcast on July 29 (2:00 CDT | 1:00 MDT | 3:00 EDT; pre-registration required).

What do you think? Are independent foundations like Bush uniquely positioned to play a catalytic role with respect to social change? Do you agree with Paul Brest? Does your own organization practice (or benefit from) strategic philanthropy? And if so, what are its "essential tenets"?

-- Mitch Nauffts

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