Are You Suffering from Strategic Stagnation?


To increase your strategic momentum, you must eliminate strategic friction slowing you down.


Navigating the waters of strategic planning is no small feat. It’s akin to steering a ship, plotting the quickest and most efficient course to the desired destination. But like any journey, obstacles arise – debris that can slow you down or reroute your course altogether.

The role of philanthropic strategy is to take the present state of your philanthropy and move it to your desired future state, ideally as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, most Grantmakers move at the strategic speed of sloths!

But before you can speed up philanthropic strategy development, you must take notice of what’s slowing you down. A variety of obstacles commonly get in the way of strategy development in foundations. These barriers, hurdles, and bumps in the road constitute strategic friction — slowing you down and wearing you out. You must be constantly on alert and ready to address them when they find their way into your planning efforts.

Here are three of the most common sources of strategic friction no matter what size your organization is—from a solo philanthropist to a global foundation:

1. Ridiculously long strategic planning processes.

It’s easy to mistakenly assume that strategy development is supposed to take one to two years and consume your team’s time and attention. After all, you look around at your colleagues and they appear exhausted from their 18-month strategic planning processes! Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?


If you spend 12-18 months refreshing your strategy, by the time it’s finalized the landscape will have shifted, rendering the strategy outdated! Furthermore, the prolonged process can leave teams drained and less enthusiastic about execution.

There’s nothing that says philanthropic strategy formulation should take a year, six months, or any other fixed amount of time. Put your assumptions aside and try something new. Why not try to set your strategy in a month—or in a week, or even in a day or two? You might be surprised at how quickly you can get the job done when you and your team are fully focused on it.

2. Obsession with data collection.

What’s really sucking up a lot of time with lengthy strategic planning processes is lengthy data gathering. Environmental scans, learning tours, listening sessions, commissioning research, evaluations, focus groups, board self-assessments, and so on. While gathering information, understanding community needs, and identifying best practices is critical, you can’t let it grind you to a halt.

One foundation CEO retained me to advise her in refreshing her foundation’s strategic plan. She asked if I could also first conduct an environmental scan to compare her foundation to other foundations in town. Although I could have garnered a hefty consulting fee for the project, I told her this was the last thing she should do. Not only was this comparing apples to oranges (comparing a family foundation to a community foundation, private foundations, and corporate giving programs, all of varying sizes and funding interests), but it had nothing to do with this particular foundation’s strategy and would cause unnecessary delays.

I recommend two things to help ensure data gathering doesn’t slow you down. First, separate “data gathering” from “strategy formulation”—the former should inform the latter. Both don’t need to be lumped into one “strategic planning” bucket. Second, take the time to continually learn. That way you don’t have to embark on a one-off data-gathering exercise to prepare for philanthropic strategy formulation. You should be able to quickly and easily assemble the information you already have.

3. Style over substance.

There is so much weight put into the strategic plan document, that it can be incredibly difficult to muster the courage to pull the trigger and take the first steps toward implementation.

Imagine this: You’ve just completed your strategy development retreat, and it was a resounding success! What should happen next is you identify your top implementation priorities, assign people to be accountable to each of them, and begin implementing your new strategy – starting tomorrow.

Instead, funders toss debris in their way. They decided to devote the next three months to crafting a beautifully written strategic plan document, complete with the history of the foundation, eye-catching infographics, and a complex theory of change. Once it’s been proofread, copy-edited, and finalized, it is sent to the board for approval (even though the board already approved the strategy at the retreat). But the board doesn’t meet again for two months! Now the foundation waits before it can begin implementation. In other words, you just added a five-month delay to the implementation of your new strategy.

In reality, the simpler the summation of your new philanthropic strategy, the more likely you will get it done. Don’t waste time and money adding all the bells and whistles that look great but don’t contribute to the likelihood that you’ll actually do what you say you’ll do. Summarize your strategy in a two-page Word document the day after the retreat. Share it with your entire team and start implementing it immediately!

Being an effective philanthropist is already challenging enough: dismantling racist systems within and outside your institutions, working across issues and communities, navigating rapidly changing political and economic landscapes, managing your staff and board, and learning from grantees doing critical work on the ground. Don’t add to your own challenges by creating strategic friction that slows you down!

Want to learn more ways to eliminate strategic friction? Join my upcoming workshop, Aerodynamic Giving: Minimize Strategic Friction and Find Your Fastest Path to Impact. It’s free. It’s virtual. And it’s exclusively for foundation CEOs and Trustees. During the workshop, I will share six MORE sources of strategic friction that slow funders down. You don’t want to miss it. Click the button below to learn more and RSVP today!

Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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