Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Iconic strategizing

"Like many other iconic foundations, Ford has struggled to demonstrate impact and relevance...while attention and interest have focused on newer foundations...Those newer philanthropies experiment with the tools of giving, exercise rigorous assessment and analysis of their work, and are outspoken about successes and failures."

Stephanie Strom, "New Leader Overhauls Ford Foundation," New York Times, April 14, 2009.

What does iconic have to do with it? I'm not sure, unless iconic is being used to say old, stodgy, not with it, old-fashioned,etc. And somehow the implication is that "impact and relevance" are a function of whether anyone is paying attention. Moreover, there's the conventional wisdom that "newer philanthropies experiment." There certainly is more focused money -- but I'm not sure any more impact if you take a careful look.

Ford is to be applauded for emerging from a couple of years of strategic planning without closing its doors, staying engaged, and doing some critical rethinking about investment strategies. This type of strategic planning typically happens when a new leader comes on board -- and there are too many examples of foundations getting lost in their new CEO's planning. A challenge for "iconic" foundations is that they appreciate the world's complexity and thus have the habit of investing in many aspects of change, which inevitably dissipates focus and can lead to more silos and more bureaucracy.

I do quibble a bit with the statement of a Ford spokesperson,"Every one of these issue areas will involve a major investment of the size you can announce because each one requires a level of resources of the magnitude to have an impact." A sentence before by the same spokesperson says Ford's total investments in specific areas were "obscured by reporting of each grant made."

This sounds a bit like Gates-envy doubletalk and capture by the strategic communication's crowd. Everyone in philanthropy was stunned last summer and fall by the blitzkrieg of email announcements about big Gates' investments in various grantees, our grantees. Suddenly, everyone was talking community colleges as the answer to just about everything. What an echochamber. That's impact. Right?

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