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February 28, 2014

What does it take to develop a clear foundation strategy?  After observing over a dozen FIRG presentations, I think I have finally put my finger on at least part of the answer: inside and outside knowledge.

At this month’s FIRG presentation, Chris Stone, head of the Open Society Foundations, talked about what is necessary for policy change. He described a two-pronged strategy – a strategy to create allies within the government and other elite circles and a second strategy to build a mass of external grassroots supporters who know how to mount a popular movement.

As someone who saw a lot of strategic planning in my former work in nonprofit consulting, I know how difficult it can be to weave together strategies at multiple levels of action. I was struck by the clarity with which Stone has developed strategies that match the organization and its environment. OSF is able to play to the organization’s strengths (broad reach of contacts, long-term insider relationships that could affect multiple issue areas, and the financial capacity to spread support over a lot of tactics) while working around the weaknesses it faces (for example, skepticism about foreign or “big money” influence in public issues).

This was not the first time that I have been impressed with the strategies chosen by foundations represented at FIRG, but it took Stone’s presentation for me to formulate a theory of how such thoughtful strategies come about. One thing to note about Stone is that he has served in many positions that are outside of the foundation world but related in some way. These include academic positions at Harvard related to criminal justice and nonprofit organizations and leadership positions in social service, legal defense, and advocacy nonprofits such as the Vera Institute of Justice, the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, and the New York State Capital Defender Office.

Stone is a good example of a leader with “inside” and “outside” knowledge. When I say “inside” knowledge, I mean knowledge of the foundation’s strengths and weaknesses. By “outside” knowledge I mean knowledge of the issue environment. Outside knowledge can answer questions like: Who are the other actors, what are these actors’ strengths and weaknesses, and how will they react to the foundation’s strategies? How can these actors be influenced? What are the trends that the foundation needs to be aware of? It can even help illuminate the inside knowledge further by helping foundation leaders identify which of the organization’s strengths and weaknesses are unique or unusual in the field. I would contend that smart answers to these outside knowledge questions are what set the Open Society Foundations apart.

If outside knowledge is an important ingredient for developing a successful strategy, then foundation leaders should be interested in developing this critical asset. For some, this may take the form of hiring leaders like Stone who have spent time looking at the issues and actors from a wide variety of non-foundation (or “outside”) perspectives. For others, it might take the form of encouraging employees and Board members to have frequent contact with outside experts (and soliciting these expert opinions during the strategic planning process) or incentivizing employees to take on more varied outside positions as Board members or volunteers.

Furthermore, aspiring foundation leaders in the early stages of their careers can take heart based on these observations. It sometimes seems to those interested in foundation careers that openings are too few and far between to make such an ambition viable, especially if restrictions like family make it difficult to move to take advantage of jobs. If it is true that a variety of experience is important for developing strategy, then young professionals should not be hesitant to choose jobs based on the opportunity to sharpen skills and work with leaders in their field, and leave the foundation-related career goals to materialize at a later stage.

Danielle Vance-McMullen