Is ‘considered’ the new ‘strategic’? by Fiona Higgins

I have a problem with the word ‘strategic’. It tends to be over-used, alongside other words such as empowerment, leadership and tailored. (I also have a problem with literally, awesome and like – because, like, I have three children – but that’s another conversation.)

The phrase ‘strategic philanthropy’ started its life as part of the lexicon of corporate philanthropy. It was linked to cause-related marketing, in which companies focus their charitable activities around an issue or cause that, in turn, supports their own commercial objectives.

These days, ‘strategic philanthropy’ usually refers to a nebulous standard applied to private philanthropy, often defined by what it is not: i.e. it’s not cheque-book grantmaking, it’s not one-off or short-term, it’s not driven by personal passions, it’s not unmeasurable or unaccountable.

Even those of us who thought we knew what strategic philanthropy might be –  a style of giving characterised by a commitment to clear goals, data-driven strategies, heightened accountability and rigorous evaluations – are often faced with the frustrating reality that achieving social change is a messy business. Making a real and lasting difference involves a chain of actors within complicated, intersecting socio-cultural systems that are always evolving (ergo unpredictable) and often fundamentally flawed.

This has led philanthropic thought-leaders such as Mark Kramer to conclude that “if funders are to make greater progress in meeting society’s urgent challenges, they must move beyond today’s rigid and predictive model of strategy to a more nuanced model of emergent strategy that better aligns with the complex nature of social progress.”[i]

Sounds awesome (sorry), but how exactly do we do that? Especially if we are giving away relatively modest sums, or we don’t have experts on our staff or board. At APS, we’ve identified some hallmarks of a fluid and adaptive mode of giving, which we call ‘considered philanthropy’:

  1. Follow a leader. Identify a bigger fish (such as other foundations or givers, NFP entities or government agencies) working in the space you’re passionate about, and work with or through them. It’s not a sign of inadequacy or an act of blind faith; it’s a considered commitment to the co-creation of meaningful outcomes (and an abandonment of the illusion of control).
  2. Find the multiplier factor. Not every social problem is amenable to scaled solutions, but wherever possible, find a way to leverage your giving. Bring others with you (or jump on their bandwagon), make purposeful investments of capital in addition to grants, and look for catalytic opportunities where the impact of your philanthropic dollar is multiplied in measurable ways.
  3. Choose one thing. This is challenging, given the multiple charities and compelling causes available for support. Givers are also sometimes reluctant to focus on one area of social change for fear of being ‘unfair’ on others. But wherever a determined, single-minded focus is established by a giver, their opportunity for impact is (usually) significantly heightened.
  4. Listen, analyse and (re)iterate. Some philanthropists believe their commercial successes confer upon them the innate capacity to run a charity. Charities have long-term on-the-ground experience and an in-depth understanding of their complex ecosystem – listen to them and treat them as partners. Analyse their strategy and ask them to convince you of its merit, but once convinced, back them. Be ready to change your tightly-held theories of change or ideas about what works.
  5. Ask, what else? Throwing money at a problem is important. But equally important – and sometimes even more so – are non-monetary strategies including advocacy or the exertion of personal influence. Money talks loudly at the beginning, but sometimes its greatest power is in opening doors of discussion with government, business or the social sector.

Having identified these hallmarks of ‘considered giving’ at APS, we don’t then dismiss other forms of philanthropy. Sometimes our sector creates unhelpful hierarchies of giving, in which one style of philanthropy is lauded and applauded, while a more transactional, EOFY style is derided as reactive, antiquated and ‘unstrategic’ (which isn’t a real word, anyway).

Many charities rely heavily on the pre-30 June donation rush. Indeed, some charity staffers suggest it’s exactly this kind of ‘unstrategic’ giving – free of donor demands and thus deployable for purposes that the charity deems fit – that is most liberating. Surely there is room for all styles of giving in this complex undertaking called philanthropy?

Irrespective of style, however, philanthropy should generally be satisfying (which isn’t the same as easy). When your philanthropy is energising and inspiring, it serves to galvanise other givers, motivates your change partners and predisposes you to giving even more – all of which increases the likelihood of social impact success. Quite a considered approach, wouldn’t you say?



[i] J. Kania, M. Kramer & P. Russell, Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World. SSIR, Summer 2014. See