Field Notes: Why the ‘Strategic Model of Philanthropy’ Fails

Could an emergent strategy in philanthropy bring a “brave new world” to complex social problems? A Foundation Strategy Group team suggests a new approach.

In their feature article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review, John Kania, Mark Kramer and Patty Russell of the Foundation Strategy Group explain why the strategic model of philanthropy so often fails to make progress against complex social problems. They observe that the conventional tools of strategic philanthropy often fail to help social organizations reach their ambitious goals, and suggest an “emergent strategy approach” is needed to address the root causes of society’s complex problems:

Emergent strategy accepts that a realized strategy emerges over time as the initial intentions collide with, and accommodate to, a changing reality. The term “emergent” implies that an organization is learning what works in practice. Organizations that are intentional in examining how their strategy plays out in the context of surrounding events will learn what parts of their intended strategy went unrealized, what parts are deliberate, and what parts were emergent—the result of both their actions and the actions of others—that lead to a newly realized strategy. And this newly realized strategy will continue to evolve, incorporating aspects of both deliberate and emergent strategy.

…Emergent strategy [also] focuses on strengthening the systems and relationships that can generate solutions, rather than on constructing the solutions themselves. The ability of a system to adapt and ultimately reach its goals depends on the overall “fitness” of the entire system.

Here’s a chart that explains the approach:




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