Special Ops: 5 Situations for Deploying a Red Team


military dogWe all need friends and colleagues who have our backs. But maybe we need something else, too. Maybe we need someone who can think like the enemy.

The CIA calls it the “Red Team.” The military, the Federal Aviation Administration, and major corporations like IBM also use the term to refer to a group designed to penetrate your defenses — with your enthusiastic approval. This idea isn’t often discussed in philanthropy circles, but I believe it holds tremendous value for us.

In any organization, a Red Team is charged with finding out what can go wrong, where the holes are, and why what you’re trying to do won’t work. The point is to question your assumptions, plans, operations, concepts, and capabilities.

Here are five situations in which a funder should have a Red Team:

  1. There’s a lot of money on the line. Perhaps you’re making a very large grant, significantly higher than most that you make. Are you sure you’ve considered all the holes that money could fall into?
  2. The foundation’s reputation is at stake. Perhaps you are taking on a controversial issue, or taking the lead in your community to solve a particular problem. Do you need someone who can look at your actions through the eyes of, say, a local news reporter hunting for a juicy story?
  3. The project will use a lot of your foundation’s internal resources. Perhaps it will draw a significant amount of your CEO’s time, or it will need involvement from multiple departments, diverting them from their other important work. Who has helped you think through what this will mean for staff morale and productivity?
  4. You can’t walk away Perhaps it’s a five-year project to fund technology upgrades for disadvantaged schools. You can’t pull the plug mid-way (e.g., leaving schools with new technology but no training to use it). Can someone help you decide whether this is the best use of your resources?
  5. You’re responding to an emergency The community you serve has been hard hit by an unexpected storm or other disaster, and you’re tempted to rechannel your support. Do you have advisors who can help you think through the results of a knee-jerk reaction, no matter how well intended?

A Red Team doesn’t have to be complicated. It does need to involve smart people who are given permission to kick the tires — and to do so quickly. For more about how to deploy a Red Team, click here to read the full article.


Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a philanthropy expert and consultant. If you found this blog post useful, please subscribe. On Twitter? Follow me @Philanthropy411.

Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly © Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2014.

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