Foundations: Stop taking a year off to do your strategic planning!

[Image description: A golden mask, the kind that might be used at a masquerade party. Image by Julio Rionaldo on Unsplash]

Hi everyone. It is October, which means my favorite holiday is coming up: Halloween, a time when children can dress up in costume and go door-to-door for free food, while adults dress up as sexy versions of healthcare workers and politicians.

And of course, it’s also a time to give ourselves a good scare. In our sector, there’s plenty of terrifying things: Restricted funding, 360 evaluations, lack of retirement savings, and creepy colleagues who tip-toe behind you in darkened hallways and whisper, “Would you consider joining the gala planning committee?” I’ll tell you a story about one of the scariest things that happen though. Make sure all the lights are on and you’re not by yourself:

“There once was a foundation. Like other foundations, it provided funding each year and supported many vital causes.

One cold and chilly Autumn day, the nonprofits it funded received a mass email: ‘To be more thoughtful and effective in our approach of working with our grantees to solve entrenched problems like poverty and hunger, the Foundation has decided to take the next 12 months off to determine our priorities and strategies. During this time, no funding will be allocated. Thank you for your patience.’

They say if you listen carefully, even to this day, you can still hear the sighs of hundreds of nonprofit leaders, and the mournful exasperation of the community members who faced lost and reduced services.”

I thought this was a practice that ended years ago, but last week I was at a conference and met a colleague who told me of a local funder who took or is taking a year off to create their strategic plan. Some funders I’ve known of in the past have taken 18 months or two years off for this.

A lot of strategic planning in general is a flawed, useless, or even destructive process that often entrenches us in incrementalism. As Hildy Gottlieb says, “We wanted to get to Paris. Instead, we’ve done a six-month study of our driveway, and made plans to get to the supermarket.” Taking months or years off to do that is silly.

So, funders, we need to have a talk. Because of power dynamics, your grantees can’t be completely honest with you to your face, but this practice of taking significant time off to determine your strategies and priorities is not only extremely aggravating, it’s also steeped in privilege and is harmful to not only the nonprofits that rely on you for funding, but to the people who rely on the nonprofits.*

Let’s talk about aggravation: Funding in our sector is already unpredictable, never sufficient, and highly restricted. The ridiculous hoops many funders force nonprofit leaders to jump through on a daily basis, with the snowflake grant applications and bespoke budgets and reports, cause endless stress on nonprofit leaders, leaving our faces gaunt and haunted, to the point that the majority of us don’t need costumes to look like ghosts and zombies this Halloween. When a funder removes themselves from the chess board, we then have to reassess our own strategies, come up with new ones, and scramble to fill in holes in the budget. All of this takes time and energy away from what nonprofits should be spending most of their time doing: Providing critical services.

Let’s talk about privilege. Most foundations have the privilege of not worrying about funding, whereas nonprofits don’t have that luxury. Most foundations already have money, so they don’t have to worry that if they shut down for a year, their entire operation will collapse. Foundation staff, who on the whole are compensated more than their colleagues at nonprofits, don’t have to worry about their livelihoods when the foundations take a long break to brainstorm and plan. All of this makes this practice of shutting down for a year or two an extremely privileged and out-of-touch one. It’s like that Edgar Allan Poe story where a bunch of nobles wall themselves off in a castle and throw a masquerade ball while the Plague rages outside. Except these nobles have white papers and La Croix.

Let’s talk about harm. Pausing grantmaking is not a neutral thing. It affects people. You know nonprofits do strategic planning all the time, right? But we rarely hear of an organization shutting down all its services for a year or two to do it. Imagine a nonprofit sending out this message: “To be more effective and thoughtful in our approach of addressing hunger, the XYZ food bank will stop giving out food for the next 18 months to engage in a strategic planning process, which will include a thorough assessment of our community’s needs as well as a re-envisioning of our role moving forward. Thank you to our hungry families for your patience. We will see those of you who are still alive when we reopen.”

Now, all this time to think and plan might be justified if it were effective, but from many nonprofits’ perspectives, it’s not. Whatever clarity and focus foundations gain from this length of time off usually does not make up for the all the negative consequences these hiatuses in grantmaking bring. By the time the funder comes back to reality, community needs may have changed, and their partners may have moved on, in which case the funder’s plan is immediately out of date (though no one will actually tell them that to their face).

Also, due to the penchant for toxic intellectualizing among many funders, the new strategic plan they come up with often involves further assessment and research: “After our 18-month planning process, we are proud to unveil the Foundation’s new 3-year strategic plan, which will begin with a 6-month period of listening sessions, where we get to hear directly from former and potential grantees about what their needs are! After that, we will convene a summit!” If you just felt a shiver running down your spine, you’re not alone.

The idea of funders being effective by being “strategic” in the traditional sense has been thoroughly debunked, with the proponents of “Strategic Philanthropy” literally apologizing for having unleashed this concept on the field and causing untold damage to the sector. And yet it still persists.

Foundations have less knowledge about community issues, so it makes very little sense for them to lead in strategy and demanding nonprofits follow their lead. They should be following nonprofits’ lead on which strategies to tackle. And if it’s purely an internal thing (staff structure, branding, etc.), it still doesn’t warrant shutting down grantmaking for any amount of time to do it.

There are tons of funders out there doing amazing work. And like nonprofits, they do need to be intentional about how they go about doing it. Within reason. Unless you’re facing a severe existential crisis, taking huge amounts of time off is indulgent and out of touch. If you’re going to do strategic planning, don’t overthink, do it fast, and take lead from community. And for the love of Equity, keep allocating funding.

(*As usual, I anticipate some predictable and clichéd resistance to my statement that nonprofits “rely” on funders for funding. If you don’t want nonprofits “relying” on foundations, then help create a society where wealthy people and corporations pay their fair share of taxes and government is representative of its people and is functional, and many nonprofits and foundations can close. Until that happens, yeah, nonprofits are going to “rely” on funders.)

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