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Good strategy needs sound data: response to ‘Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World’

The following is a cross-post of an article by Angela Kail that first appeared on Latest from Alliance, the blog of Alliance magazine. To read the original post, click here.

Strategic philanthropy is too simplistic for a complex world, according to John Kania, Mark Kramer and Patty Russell, writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Setting a goal and working tirelessly towards it might work for things like building a hospital, but most problems are too complex to be accurately predicted and thought out in advance. The authors instead suggest taking an emergent strategy approach, adapting and changing strategy as more information comes to light.

Angela-2 Angela Kail

Emergent strategies recognize that trying to do things like improve people’s education touches on a number of other issues, including health, poverty and social mobility. The effects of these can be impossible to predict in advance; emergent strategies change tack to deal with new issues and problems as they arise. Which means, of course, that you need information about what the new issues and problems are as soon as possible.

But where do funders get their information from? For most funders the information about whether or not their programmes are succeeding will come from their grantees, so this information needs to be good enough to help funders decide if they should review their course of action. But it isn’t.

NPC’s survey of how funders use impact measurement found that while most of the funders surveyed considered impact measurement to be really important, less than 60 per cent are using the impact measurement of their grantees to inform or review their strategy. Only around a third of funders are using the information to inform other funders. And this is because, in large part, the impact information they receive simply isn’t good enough to base decisions on.

For an emergent strategy to work, funders will need to invest in improving the impact measurement standards of their grantees. NPC’s approach, articulated in our recent Four Pillars paper, is to have an impact measurement system that measures what it important and to a standard that means that people can act on the information that comes back. Too much impact measurement goes into providing evidence for funders; not enough goes into getting information that charities and funders can actually use to improve their strategies. The Four Pillars approach grounds impact measurement in what charities are trying to achieve; it asks charities to prioritize what will be useful to know, select the standard of measurement they need to answer their questions, and then select their tools. This sort of approach is badly needed if we are to secure good enough information about whether or not things are working on the ground, and to help us adapt accordingly.

If funders are not basing their strategies on information from grantees, what are they basing them on? The answer should include information from the people they are trying to help – but this is unlikely. Asking people what they think is likely to help them, or how different issues touch upon their lives, is a valuable source of information that is far too seldom exploited. But it can be incredibly valuable. A survey of funders by the Centre for Effective Philanthropy found that those that were making efforts to listen to the views of beneficiaries had a better idea of the progress they were making on their goals and the impact the foundation was having.

In a complex world results may not always be replicable. But that doesn’t mean that we can neglect finding out what works and what doesn’t. Funders will want to replicate or adapt programmes if they are successful. They should be talking to other funders and charities about what they have found to be successful and what has been a failure, so that we can collectively come up with emergent strategies, and are not doomed to repeat our failures. For this to happen, we need to be gathering evidence from as many sources as we can, evidence which can tell us whether we are going off track or not.

We need to be investing in getting that information, and sharing it as widely as we possibly can. The cost of going headstrong for a goal without checking to see if we are on course is too high.
Angela Kail is head of the Funders Team at NPC.
Topics: Senior Executive Issues