Where Strategic Philanthropy Went Wrong

A groundbreaking article by some of the original proponents of strategic philanthropy, in which the authors move significantly from a historic focus on individual organizational efforts and architecting winning strategies to those that are oriented toward strengthening community-based efforts to design and pursue systemic transformation strategies. Creating a bridge from a mainstream perspective, the article points the way toward strategies that are more aligned with the needs and goals of regenerative design. 

Early proponents of strategic philanthropy have been evolving for years toward more systemic and humanistic strategies. Nonetheless, the recognition in this article that the movement needs redirection, particularly into community-driven systemic change strategies, along with the importance of governments and environment setting conditions, make this article a major departure for the field in recognition of the limited results that have been achieved in spite of massive expenditure. 

While the authors trace the idea that beneficiaries have less insight into their own wellbeing than wealthy philanthropists, this glosses over much of the hubris encompassed in an equivalent misunderstanding of venture philanthropy (and its spinoffs in impact- philanthropy and -investment), namely, that markets know better. 

Starting with the idea that "philanthropists must learn to empower individuals economically and politically to make choices for themselves", the authors "propose 'empowerment philanthropy' as a new approach to fostering political and economic self-determination by supporting people in finding their own solutions and ensuring an effective multiracial democracy." 

Yet their approach importantly extends this well-known "movement logic" beyond its origins and into a new frame. It also focuses on the central role of governments in facilitating the kinds of changes that they envision.  They observe that "only government has the capacity to address social and environmental problems on a national scale." They continue, "Without changing government policy, even the most well-funded and effective charities cannot come anywhere close to meeting needs on a national scale."

"We must redirect our efforts toward the urgent necessity of making our democracy more fully representative of our population. We must support people in finding their own solutions, boosting their sense of agency, and supporting them in building their own communities."

The authors state: "philanthropists who work toward a more equitable society must ensure a functioning democracy that is truly representative of our population, reject false and misleading social narratives that misdirect public opinion, and support the economic self-determination of those living in poverty." Such a shift represents a fundamental change in understanding power and influence in philanthropy. 

By Mark Kramer & Steve Phillips, Published in Stanford Social Innovation Review