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October 25, 2013

It’s precious rare, in grantmaking circles, to hear anyone admit to carrying on philanthropy that isn’t strategic ­— much less to boast of it. Here at the Center, where Strategic Philanthropy is part of our name, we obviously try to encourage that aspiration as much as possible, even as we realize that (a) many foundations aren’t nearly as strategic as they want to be, and (b) strategy, by itself, isn’t the answer to everything. At a recent meeting of the Center’s Foundation Impact Research Group, Robert Gallucci, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, outlined four areas in which his foundation is intentionally and proudly not strategic. One example he gave is the foundation’s internationally famous Fellows Program (don’t call it “genius awards”). Another area is arts funding in Chicago, which Gallucci considers more akin to good citizenship. “We do that because we think we ought to. I don’t think it’s strategic philanthropy.”

In two other areas (you can hear his description of those in the video clip), MacArthur’s work isn’t strategic because it’s deliberately exploratory. It consists of groping about in dark spaces where the facts aren’t good enough to inform a theory, but the possibilities are too intriguing to ignore. There are, he says, “hard cases that we think we want to deal with, that we want to try to address, that we think are important, but we’re nowhere near being able to frame a strategy. And I don’t want to wait until we can. So we start making grants.”

In an effort to confine their work to finely honed strategies, foundations sometimes forget that a certain amount of “reaching around” (Gallucci’s phrase) is essential for learning, thinking, focusing, and critiquing.  It isn’t elegant, and it can lead down some embarrassing blind alleys. But it appears that the best strategies may start with some decidedly non-strategic “reaching around.”

I’ve lately been reviewing roughly a decade of this kind of pre-strategic exploration at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, whose Pioneer Portfolio was created to carry on precisely this kind of exploratory grantmaking. That research is still under way, but it may help illuminate the connection between early-stage “reaching around” and later-stage strategy. We’ll have an article on this later in the year. Stay tuned.

Watch the rest of Gallucci’s seminar here.

Tony Proscio