Strategy Isn’t a Bad Word


There’s a lot of complaining going on in the field of philanthropy lately. It feels like philanthropy whack-a-mole. One new idea pops up and everyone loves it. Then it gets whacked down and a new one pops up. The new idea is admired for a while, then the mallet comes to whack it down. And on it goes.

One complaint I’ve noticed lately is against strategic philanthropy. The claims are that strategic philanthropy is too rigid and prescriptive; that the power rests exclusively with the funder determining the strategy and nonprofits, who are closest to the issues at hand, are left out of strategy development; and there are alternative and better approaches to philanthropy such as participatory grantmaking (grantmaking that cedes decision-making power about funding to the communities that funders aim to serve) and trust-based philanthropy (which seeks to alleviate power imbalances between funders and grantees). These approaches are super important and helpful, and funders would be smart to explore and implement them as appropriate.

But these approaches aren’t alternatives to strategy. 

Strategy is a framework within which decisions are made that affect the nature and direction of your philanthropy. Formulating your strategy means identifying your desired future: the change you want to create or the type of philanthropist you want to become. Strategy implementation means understanding your current state and figuring how to get from your current state to your desired future state. This usually involves aligning people, systems and structures.

There’s no reason why strategy formulation and implementation can’t include participatory grantmaking, trust-based philanthropy, design-thinking, human-centered design, an equity lens, or any other approach. Setting strategy doesn’t necessarily mean that only foundation board members are in the room. You can involve grantees, community stakeholders, issue experts, and residents. You can design and implement strategy so that the people most impacted by the problem are squarely involved in solving it. This can certainly include shared power and decision-making.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen funders allow their strategies to get out of hand. Rigid guidelines. Prescriptive outcomes. Unrealistic expectations for “return on investment.” I recall listening to a foundation leader excitedly describe her foundation’s new blueprint for community change. They created their community change model after years of research (so it must be true), and were thrilled to tell communities exactly what they needed to do, how they needed to do it, in what order, who they needed to involve, and in what time frame. And they knew communities would jump at the chance to jump through their hoops, given the large grant being dangled over them.

I appreciate the critiques of strategic philanthropy, because it’s always helpful to point out what’s not working as planned, and the unanticipated downsides of a much-heralded approach. But philanthropists being unrealistic, rigid, exclusive, and untrustworthy doesn’t have anything to do with strategy. It has to do with being unrealistic, rigid, exclusive and untrustworthy!

Now, I realize that I’m writing this while at the same time I’m sharing news that I have a new book coming out called Delusional Altruism! But hear me out. I believe most philanthropists genuinely want to make a difference, help others, and change the world in positive ways. AND, I think they often get in their own way. One of the ways they do that is by whacking down ideas, models and approaches that might not have always been well implemented, in favor of new shiny ones. 

Let’s be open to ALL the tools and ideas we have at our disposal and allow ourselves to use the ones we feel will best meet our important goals. After all, we’re trying to end child trafficking, ensure equitable access to high-quality education, and find cures to diseases. Why whack ourselves down?

Be sure to pre-order a copy of my new book, Delusional Altruism: Why Philanthropists Fail To Achieve Change And What They Can Do To Transform Giving. It explains how too often funders allow fear and a scarcity mindset to get in our way. How we ask the wrong questions, which send us down the wrong paths. Or we let ourselves be fooled by our own efforts. It’s also chock-full of tips to transform your giving, including starting with the right questions, building trusting relationships, and – you guessed it – quickly setting and implementing your strategy! Order by March 22 to receive free bonuses, such as webinars, private consultations and having me speak at your next event. Discounts are available for bulk orders. Pre-order your copy today!

© 2020 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.

About Kris Putnam-Walkerly

I’m a global philanthropy expert, advisor and award-winning author. I help ultra-high net worth donors, celebrities, foundations and Fortune 500 companies dramatically increase the clarity, speed, impact and joy of their giving. I’m the author of Delusional Altruism: Why Philanthropists Fail to Achieve Change And What They Can Do To Transform GivingandConfident Giving: Sage Advice for Funders, was named one of “America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers” (along with U2’s Bono!), I write about philanthropy for Forbes.comAlliance MagazineDe Dikke Blauwe and am frequently quoted in leading publications such as BloombergNPR and WSJ

Whether you are just getting started in philanthropy, want to refresh your giving strategy, or need to catapult yourself to your desired future, I can help. Let’s talk! Call me at +1-800-598-2102 x1, email me at or schedule a call.

Pre-Order NOW to take advantage of FREE bonuses!

I’m so excited to share with you that my next book, Delusional Altruism: Why Philanthropists Fail To Achieve Change and What They Can Do To Transform Givingwill be published by on March 24th, but is available for pre-order NOW! I can’t wait to share with you the many ways we are all “delusional” in our altruism and how we get in our own way without even realizing it. And you know me—the book also provides tons of tips and suggestions of what you can do differently to transform your giving! 



“Kris is great at making the complex easy to understand, and helps grantmakers shift their thinking to embrace new possibilities and opportunities.”

LaTida Smith, CEO, Moses Taylor Foundation


Want to learn more? Visit my website to learn how I help funders, access free resources, and read client testimonials.

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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