Taking Strategy All The Way to Implementation

January 8, 2014

Discussions of strategic philanthropy, with their emphasis on big ideas and root causes, can sometimes treat the implementation of new policies as essentially a tactical matter — important, maybe, but not really strategic. In this guest post, the former director of Strategic Learning and Evaluation for The Atlantic Philanthropies takes on this bias, citing an example of smart philanthropy in Ireland that involves plenty of big ideas, but that puts effective implementation at the center of its strategic agenda.


Especially in the human services, progressive foundations often see their ideal role as incubating ideas and testing approaches that can then be adopted as public policy.  But as the recent experience with health reform in the United States illustrates, policy implementation can be just as critical to the success of a new idea as policy design. Even amongst foundations that view themselves as operating at the heart of policy development — for example, those that fund advocacy — the tendency is often to assume that implementation is the sole preserve of the public sector. Or, on occasion, foundations can err in the opposite direction — assuming that government rarely implements things well and should not be trusted to do so.


In fact, it seems there is a tendency in philanthropy to adopt one of two extreme visions of public services:

  1. the government just needs the right evidence, and to be pressed to make the right choices, and the implementation will take care of itself; or
  2. the government is inefficient and should be by-passed by private actors who can take effective solutions to greater scale.


The first approach overlooks some compelling evidence that public delivery systems have deeply ingrained beliefs and practices that inhibit policy shifts — even when many people in the system know that current practices need to change. The second view can result in competing parallel universes of public and charitable actors trying to achieve the same goals but with insufficient resources and duplication. Fortunately, the ailment of “policy implementation deficit disorder” seems to be getting more attention in recent years. Efforts to develop models of collaborative impact, and to draw on organizational change theories to help reform complex systems, are hopeful signs of this change.


In Ireland, there is an interesting case of an organization called Genio, partly funded by philanthropy, which works to help government implement well-designed policy. Its focus to date has been primarily in the areas of mental health and disability, though it may widen. Although it has been widely acknowledged in Ireland since the 1960s that large institutional settings are not the best place to care for many residents with disabilities and mental health issues, change towards better models has been slow. This inertia within the social services results from a combination of vested interests and ingrained beliefs and practices about how services should be provided.


Drawing on approaches that are informed both by private sector thinking and by an intimate knowledge of how the social care systems work, Genio focuses on addressing the problems of implementation by working with those actors within the social services — public and private — who want to move toward models that place the needs of the user at the center of how services are delivered. Genio provides funding on a competitive basis to service providers as well as support for capacity building. It gathers data about what actually has worked and amplifies the voice of service users and their families who are involved in these reform efforts.


A recent evaluation of the model by the University of Ulster, overseen by an international advisory group, has highlighted that even relatively modest resources targeted at encouraging and enabling more effective implementation can create a coalition of the willing in service systems. That, in turn, can transform the quality of lives for those that depend on social care systems while reducing the costs of these services.


The independence that private money provides Genio has made it possible to catalyze change within state-funded social care services that had previously been incapable of reforming themselves — even when it was widely acknowledged that there was a better way. It’s just one example, but it illustrates why policy implementation is critical to realizing benefits for the users of social services. And it is a case where strategic private funding is uniquely positioned to act as a change agent.


- John A. Healy

The Nonprofit Management Centre, School of Business

Trinity College Dublin






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John A. Healy


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