William Schambra in a presentation to Chicago Grantmakers for Effective Organizations July 1, 2008, suggests that strategic philanthropy working from a grand theory of social change, will almost always founder. There are simply too many variables, and they all interact. History shows that central planning, whether by government or foundations will fail.
What foundations can do, I would suggest, is to be serious, quiet, attentive students of their surroundings, watching carefully for opportunities to enhance slightly the trends that they applaud, and diminish slightly the trends that they deplore.
...This approach – watching for opportunities to make small differences – applies not just at the grand policy level, but at the grassroots level as well. Here, I heartily recommend a new book entitled Grassroots Philanthropy, written by Bill Somerville, founder of Philanthropic Venture Initiatives in San Francisco.
Rather than having the experts at foundation headquarters draw up a grand strategy for transforming a neighborhood, he suggests, it would be far wiser for the philanthropist to get out of that comfortable chair in the foundation office and spend most of her time quietly and discretely poking around the neighborhood.
The point is to find the unsung community leaders who have particular, concrete ideas about how the neighborhood can be improved, and who can do a great deal with a small grant at a particularly critical place and time.
These small, quiet interventions certainly don't add up to a coherent, unified strategy. But they do modestly enhance favorable trends and diminish unfavorable trends in the manner appropriate to the status of foundations as relatively minor players among other, more important players.
The additional virtue of this approach is that it opens itself to the civic engagement of citizens who have otherwise often been marginalized by the larger social policy actors, and thus helps meet the pressing national need for democratic renewal.
"Sweetness and light" was a Roman conceit: The diligent bees go from flower to flower. They create honey (sweetness) and wax (light from beeswax candles). I am not a grant maker, but in sales promotion, the proven best practice is not for the Home Office to tell those in the Field what will work and make them do it; that almost always fails. Rather we who would promote sales circulate among the best advisors to find out what is working for them. Then we share what works, and draw attention and support to those who are most successful. The spread of ideas and best practices is lateral, and in all directions, merely supported from "above." I would think the same would go for encouraging social change.
I have noticed that conservative thinkers tend to say that progressives are in favor of scientific management, large governmental programs, theory-driven grants, and top down, technocratic solutions imposed upon ordinary people. I can see why conservatives would say that, thinking of the New Deal, central planning in socialist countries, strategic big foundation philanthropy, and the aftermath of the civil rights era, when populist gains were translated into laws and into Great Society social programs. But you could make a similar charge against Fortune 100 companies, with their hierarchical command and control org charts, their interwoven mesh of media, advertising, intellectual property restrictions, privatization of public goods, lobbying, legislation, court-packing, and revolving doors, all leading to more wealth and power in fewer hands. We have seen a considerable centralization, verging on monopolization, of power into fewer hands on Wall Street and inside the Beltway, under both parties. Globalization is producing an elite, a Superclass as David Rothkopf calls them, that is worse than Federal, it is countryless, and nomadic, and beyond the reach of voters, and often beyond the reach of any nation's laws.
I truly wonder if we could make common cause, all of us, who believe that solutions for us, in this country, start on main street, in community with others, who work out the solutions among ourselves, rather that coming to us from, say, Home Office, Davos, or DC? Or, from Ford Foundation for that matter? If we agreed on the decentralization of wealth and power, on the rule of law, including international law, and on a level playing field, would libertarians, main street conservatives, Lou Dobb's populists, small business owners, internet utopians, and (at least some) progressives make common cause? And if so, who would the "other" be? Presumably, the bi-partisan, global, forces of centralization, now in the ascendant?
How to promote such grassroots bi-partisan alliances? Well, encourage small gains, when we find them, I guess.