In recent years, I’ve witnessed two interesting trends in philanthropy that are particularly resonant with community foundations. First, there has been a backlash against “strategic philanthropy” and accusations that foundations have become too focused on measurement and planning, using top-down approaches instead of nimbly responding to emergent and changing community needs. I wrote about this issue in my recent article for the Foundation Review, “The Best of the Humanistic and Technocratic: Why the Most Effective Workin Philanthropy Requires a Balance,” as have many others. There have certainly been some spirited discussions on blogs and at conferences as the sector ponders the appropriate balance of humanistic and technocratic approaches.
At the same time, community foundations across the nation have shifted away from the traditional “charitable banker” model and taken larger leadership roles in their communities. Leaders such as Emmet Carson of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation have spoken out about the moral and market imperatives for community foundations to identify and tackle challenging but critical local issues such as poverty, race relations, and economic development through a combination of money, media, and political will. And the field has admirably responded, with a host of tools and frameworks to help community foundations figure out how to move the needle on tough problems in their communities. In many ways, this push mirrors the move toward “strategic” technocratic approaches mentioned previously—the same ones now facing backlash in the field.
So the broad question I’d like to pose to the field, and around which I’ll moderate a panel discussion, “Balancing Humanistic and Technocratic Approaches in Community Foundation Giving” at next month’s Council on Foundations Fall Conference for Community Foundations in New Orleans, is this: What’s the role of “strategy” in community philanthropy today? Can it be too much of a good thing for your donors and your communities? Do you tie your hands and limit your ability to take risks and quickly respond with metrics and logic models? Or are community foundations, as stewards of community dollars and trust, obligated to use those resources as wisely as possible through careful planning and outcome measurement?
The obvious and marginally helpful response to all of these questions is: “There’s a balance.” I’m looking forward to facilitating a session where you can hear from community foundation leaders who have lived and breathed this conundrum: Eleanor Clement Glass of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker from the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, and Grant Oliphant of The Pittsburgh Foundation. They will share their experiences balancing the need to respond to basic community needs—in many cases as the primary game in town for this purpose—with the need to make an impact with limited resources. They’ll discuss the criteria they use to determine when to “go deep” and take on a leadership role, and when not to. And they’ll get you all thinking about how to apply these ideas in your work.
Paul Connolly is senior partner and chief client services officer at TCC Group.