Most foundations (and nonprofit organizations) undergo some form of strategic planning. It makes sense: a good strategy should specify those priorities that provide the best odds of achieving success. This offers clarity around hard decisions and where to allocate attention and resources.

The problem: Common strategic planning methods fall prey to seven strategy traps described in my last post. Most strategy development suffers from two challenges, skipping over “why” (i.e., the purpose of doing something) and jumps straight to the “what” and “how” or the opposite, providing solid high-level goals with a purpose but lacking the strategic detail of how to achieve them. Compounding the challenge, communities and the organizations closest to them rarely have a voice in the process.

These same patterns show up in the development and evaluation of programs and initiatives around grantmaking, collaboration and coordination, capacity building, leadership development, technology, and research and data. While both are necessary, tactics (doing things right) tend to win out over strategy (doing the right things), which leads to losing sight of their ultimate purpose.

The results, at minimum, include missed opportunities, reinvented wheels, disjointed efforts, and loss of traction. Worse, these patterns can lead foundation and nonprofit strategies to bypass equity and justice and perpetuate inequities, limiting impact in health, education, economic opportunity, food security, early childhood development, and nearly any other issue area. After all, when you dig into them, issues of equity and justice underlie all of these.

Over two decades of supporting and studying hundreds of clients and dozens of initiatives reaching thousands of organizations, I have seen this pattern show up as the following:

  • Foundation strategic plans that name a handful of grantmaking areas and a few solutions that were confirmed before the planning process began
  • Foundation strategic plans that name worthy goals without the rationale and logic for how they will be achieved
  • Foundation-supported nonprofit strategic plans with massive detail on how to scale a program, and not much else
  • Capacity-building initiatives that specify one allowable area of capacity and select those organizations most able to use the support
  • Community engagement efforts that ask only about people’s satisfaction with a shortlist of services

The above examples certainly have an impact and serve market needs. What is more questionable is the assumption that these will meaningfully reduce disparities for historically disadvantaged and excluded communities.

The field needs a better approach to strategy development that centers the purpose of advancing equity and justice. This approach considers the root causes of disadvantage and disparities, the role of systems and policy, the reality of systemic racism and negative narratives, and challenges to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the philanthropic field itself. While these are big considerations, a better strategy approach identifies practical actions to address these issues head-on. This approach applies both to formal strategic planning and the design and evaluation of individual programs and initiatives. Consideration of the big picture would lead to taking on the above examples very differently.

It is worth the upfront time to get strategy right. Doing so can exponentially increase the leverage of a foundation’s and its grantees’ financial and time resources.

A better strategy approach is especially needed now. Even with all the recent energy around diversity, equity, and inclusion, strategic planning and program, and initiative development processes are largely the same. An equity and justice strategy approach can provide the missing link for all the foundations that have been focusing internally and are wondering what comes next or how that translates into how they do better externally.

Similarly, we are seeing a wave of calls to action and moral and economic arguments for the systemic changes required for greater equity and justice. Examples include better and more equitable access to jobs, housing, health care, and education, greater funding for various services, and improved policies. Lists of recommendations tell policymakers and elected officials, companies, education institutions, and many other stakeholders what they can do to better support equity and justice. An equity and justice strategy approach can fill in the strategic detail for how these get realized, considering how systems behave and why. This reality includes the web of incentives that maintain the status quo, power dynamics, and the stakeholders that currently benefit.

For example, who would argue against more affordable housing? The need for more affordable housing is extensively supported by data, advocates, and the general public. It has been cited as essential to most areas of life. Further support exists for increasing equitable access to rental and homeownership options and reducing residential segregation. So why hasn’t it happened? The short answer:

  • It’s less profitable for developers.
  • Residents of even more progressive neighborhoods disfavor it (and its residents) being too close.
  • Numerous policy decisions and practices, such as local zoning laws and racial discrimination in mortgage lending and renting by landlords, make its construction and access more difficult.
  • Funding for rental assistance covers only a fraction of the households that need it.

Similar examples exist in health, education, employment, etc. An equity and justice approach defines strategies that are powerful enough to address this reality.

A better strategy development approach can advance equity and justice meaningfully instead of playing around the edges, leading to transformative change and greater and more sustainable impact for a foundation in almost any issue or program area.

We’re here to help. If your strategic plan has one or more of these challenges, reach out to us. We will be happy to talk with you about solutions and provide a free consult. Reach us here, and let’s do some good work together.

In my next post, I will begin unpacking what this strategy approach looks like and how you can implement it in your foundation. Refer to this white paper for more detail.

Let’s do some good work together.