There’s a hot debate raging on Nonprofit Quarterly right now about “strategic” and “high impact” philanthropy. I wrote a bit about how high impact philanthropy is insulting before, as Phil Cubeta of GiftHub has. He actually goes a bit further, and calls strategic philanthropy “The New Colonialism.”

Bill Schambra of the Hewlett Foundation writes,

“Above all, entertain the possibility that this particular community came up with this particular institutional response because it intuitively, non-scientifically understands that while it may not work everywhere and forever, it does work here, now, in its own backyard.

Entertain the possibility that local knowledge and traditional wisdom may be superior to scientific rationality when it comes to solving human problems.

In fact, entertain the possibility that “solving problems” is itself a skewed and biased framework for approaching this question, privileging expert analytical solutions, and diminishing the unspoken, accumulated, idiosyncratic wisdom of the local and immediate community.

So the next time the Northside Neighborhood Center comes in for a grant, don’t give them a lecture about needing to come up with a logic model to justify what you know they’ve been doing quite well for years. Just write the damned check.”

This is not anti-science, anti-outcomes or anti-measurements. It’s simply asking for human dignity for the people that your nonprofit and strategic philanthropy center purportedly want to help. Human dignity means people on the ground actually having control to create their own solutions, because they know what they need, in that moment, in that place, without interference from “best practices.”

Studies have shown that when people feel a measure of control over the solutions, they are happier and more engaged, and live longer. For example, residents of nursing homes tended to live shorter lives and develop more illnesses when they were no longer allowed to choose their activities or arrange furniture to their liking. ( Langer, Ellen. “The Illusion of Control.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 32, no. 2(1975) 311-28.)

The comments section has another apologist sock puppet from a strategic philanthropy firm or center. Check your privilege. If you’re getting paid to defend your boss, how credible are you, exactly, as a journalist? Hmmmmm.  Not very credible.

Meanwhile, Paul Scmitz continues,

Problems are complex, inter-related, and constantly changing. It is good that there be better management, better results, and better solutions in the social sector, but that must be balanced with greater trust in, engagement oft, and accountability to the communities served.

Why is strategic philanthropy insulting?

A lot of these strategic philanthropy companies and centers fall in the trap of “Rich people are smart and good” and “Poor people are dumb and bad” and therefore, it follows that rich people, with their business acumen, know how to solve complex societal problems.

As U.Va professor Siva Vaidhyanathan put it in a piece for Slate:

At some point in recent American history, we started assuming that if people are rich enough, they must be experts in all things. That’s why we trust Mark Zuckerberg to save Newark schools and Bill Gates to rid the world of malaria.

These outside strategic philanthropy centers and companies do not have any idea of how to solve an unsolvable societal problem like homelessness or hunger. Phil Cubeta writes, tongue in cheek, “Giving is an output to be duly weighed and measured.”

When the government pushes these unsolvable problems like homelessness and hunger off on nonprofits, it’s difficult to make the “baselines of success” that corporate apologists want. If every homelessness nonprofit in the US banded together, they still wouldn’t be able to “solve” homelessness.

And this is because problems like homelessness are symptoms of a larger issue which rich corporations and foundations would rather not look at, which is that the power and money is concentrated in the hands of a few, through “perfectly legal” money laundering, instead of being spread through government programs to the people that need it most.

What strategic philanthropy reminds me of is this.

“Why would you not only give the fox full rein of the henhouse, but on top of that, let the fox tell the chickens how to live?”

Watch out for Bootstrap mentality! Check out this video by The Social Justice Fund, NW. They teach people to give their money to nonprofits in the Pacific NW, and ALSO how not to be jerks when going on site visits.


The problems explored in this video sum up strategic philanthropy for me in a nutshell.

If you think that strategic philanthropy is much more nuanced than the bootstrap, top-down, best-practices, “let me stand outside the problem and tell you how to solve it” mentality that it seems to be, then by all means, show your work.

If you’d like to learn more about how to get out of these confirmation biases, check out David McRaney’s “You Are Now Less Dumb.”

you are now less dumb