When Tactical Trees Obscure the Strategic Forest


forest-272595_1920In my consultations with foundation boards, I’ve met many hardworking, well-meaning people who are often frustrated when they can’t seem to get anywhere in terms of foundation accomplishments and effectiveness. They say things like:

  • “We tried funding that, but it didn’t work.”
  • “We need to do some program-related investments.”
  • “If we had a better email newsletter, people would understand what we’re doing.”
  • “We should require a common budget form from all grantees.”

To these board members, my first word of advice is, “You’re losing sight of the forest because you’re surrounding yourself with trees.” What I mean is, “You’re so focused on tactics that you’ve lost sight of your strategy.

I can’t really blame them, of course. Tactics are easy to understand and grab on to. They imply that you’re taking action, and action is assumed to be a good thing, right?

But as a board member, your job is to focus on strategy, and leave the tactics to your capable staff. You can tell the difference between strategy and tactics by asking yourself two key questions:

  • What do we want to become (or what are we trying to accomplish)? Strategy questions often start with “what.” Ideally, this should be something big and bold, like closing the academic achievement gap in schools or drastically reducing recidivism rates for those formerly incarcerated.
  • How we get there? Tactical questions often start with “how.” “How will we accomplish that great idea you just came up with?” For example, to close the achievement gap, you may need to first disaggregate your data to full understand where the problems, increase access to high quality PreK, and provide books to parents of newborns to encourage them to read to them every day.

When you are trying to have a conversation about strategy, and people start asking “how” questions, you know you are moving from strategy to tactics before you are ready. Keep the focus on strategy first. The possibilities for tactics are endless, and sifting through them without a clear idea as to strategy can leave you spinning your wheels. You won’t know if getting on Twitter will help you achieve your goals until you have a clear communication strategy. You won’t know if it’s better to fund early childhood education or substance abuse treatment until you know what you are trying to accomplish.

One more reason to focus on strategy — it makes it clear how to show the impact of your work. Saying “We have a newsletter that goes to 5,000 readers” isn’t nearly as important as saying, “Our grantees have collectively closed the achievement gap by 20% in the last two years.”

The two key questions above are all you need to keep your focus on strategy and prevent tactics from obscuring your view of success. Ask them of yourself, your staff and your fellow board members often. I guarantee you’ll notice that you’re starting to get somewhere.


Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, has helped to transform the impact of top global philanthropies for over 18 years. She was recently inducted into the Million Dollar Consultant Hall of Fame, one of only six consultants chosen in 2017. In 2016 she was named one of America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers, and authored the book Confident Giving: Sage Advice for Funders, which was named one of “The 10 Best Corporate Social Responsibility Books.”  For more ideas, tips and tools to improve your giving, visit Putnam Consulting Group to read an article, listen to a podcast, or check out a case study.

Challenge of the Week: Are you focusing on tactics over strategy on your latest project? Email me some details at kris@putnam-consulting.com and I’ll offer a few suggestions to change your focus!

“Improving lives through philanthropy is a complex business, but the Putnam team provided us with a clear, compelling story of our work with local partners and the real-world impact that’s had the communities we serve. These are stories we’ll use and share with peers and grantee partners for years to come.”

~Paul DiLorenzo, Senior Director, Casey Family Programs

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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