The biggest trap for philanthropy in a complex world is funding simple but wrong 'solutions'

The following article, published in 2014, draws a valuable distinction between predictive (linear) and emergent (complex) models of philanthropy. I do have several bones to pick with the approach praised in the article – more on this below – but it is nevertheless a marked improvement on the standard approaches of 6 years ago.

Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World

By John Kania, Mark Kramer, & Patty Russell

To solve today’s complex social problems, foundations need to shift from the prevailing model of strategic philanthropy that attempts to predict outcomes to an emergent model that better fits the realities of creating social change in a complex world.

The practice of strategic philanthropy has advanced substantially over the past two decades, yet even its most committed theorists and practitioners—we among them—have often been disappointed by the results. We have helped hundreds of funders and nonprofit organizations commit to clear goals, data-driven strategies, heightened accountability, and rigorous evaluations—all core principles of strategic philanthropy that increase the odds of success. And yet, as we have watched funders and their grantees struggle and often fail to reach their ambitious goals, we have repeatedly felt a nagging suspicion that the conventional tools of strategic philanthropy just don’t fit the realities of social change in a complex world. We have now come to the conclusion that if funders are to make greater progress in meeting society’s urgent challenges, they must move beyond today’s rigid and predictive model of strategy to a more nuanced model of emergent strategy that better aligns with the complex nature of social progress.

Emergent strategy gives rise to constantly evolving solutions that are uniquely suited to the time, place, and participants involved…

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So, before picking at those afore-mentioned bones, I do want to reiterate that, in my opinion, this is a rather insightful piece, with which I do agree significantly more than I disagree. I’ll also note:

  1. The article’s authors have likely gained more insight in the 6 years since the article was written. (I haven’t checked. My comments are solely directed toward the article, not the authors. I’ve learned heaps and changed my thinking heaps in 6 years too …!)
  2. A 2013 piece by Patricia Patrizi, Elizabeth Heid Thompson, Julia Coffman and Tanya Beer, “Eyes Wide Open: Learning as Strategy Under Conditions of Complexity and Uncertainty” was referenced in the comments (since it was missed prior to the original publication of the article, subsequently corrected) and provides an excellent treatment of these topics. I’m not going to analyse that one here, but if the topic of strategy in philanthropy interests you, I do recommend reading it as well.

So now, the disclaimers aside, here are some of the bones I wish to pick.

First, “root cause” (an expression used several times in the article) is a linear relationship, and not an appropriate lens for working with complexity. Compared to poking around the surface symptoms of a problem, looking for a root cause is really just digging a bit deeper down the (same) assumed linear causal chain. We need to avoid thinking about cause-and-effect relationships altogether when we’re dealing with complexity. Thinking in terms of cause-and-effect relationships is not only an oversimplification; the process of doing so also tends to capture and over-focus our attention, blinding us to systemic interdependencies in the process.

Second, in dealing with wicked problems, it is not enough to have organisations working together, even if those organisations come from a range of different sectors, i.e. for-profit, not-for-profit, and government. Pre-existing structures – and that’s what organisations are – have constraints (and the processes those constraints enable and disable) already baked into them. If an option for dealing with a problem does not align with the organisation’s purpose it will not even be considered. In the philanthropic realm, this is a very serious issue. Why? In an ideal world, there would be no reason for philanthropic organisations to exist at all.


I have previously outlined some of my thoughts on this topic in Praxorium’s Donation Policy.

But I would like to look at this second point a bit more carefully, because based on conversations I’ve had over the past year or so, I’m aware that at first glance it may well seem that in making this distinction I’m just picking at nits. After all, individual human beings – not just organisations – may also have purposes misaligned with the actions required to deal with a problem. Setting aside the argument in Praxorium’s Donation Policy regarding the totally understandable tendency for organisations (and their representatives) to prioritise their own continuance, consider … what conditions have the subset of people who represent each organisation already met in order to become those representatives? Were they, for example, selected on ‘merit’ through a competitive hiring process? Did that hiring process require that they have:

  • Educational qualifications (which pre-defines what they ‘know’ and the paradigms within which they ‘know’ it)?
  • Minimum number of years of experience (which pre-defines the represented generational cohorts)?
  • Some decreed set of ‘desirable’ character traits?
  • An ability to convincingly express belief in the value of the organisation’s goals?
  • Relationships with referees highly regarded by those in the positions responsible for employing them?

With those answers in mind, consider:

  • Is it possible for a woman to truly understand how a man experiences the world?
  • … for a blind person to truly understand the experience of a deaf person?
  • … for a child to understand what it is to be an adult?
  • … for the merit-selected representative of a given organisation to appropriately understand the perspectives of those they serve?

Please note that there’s no blame here. It just is what it is. We can each only have the experience we have. There’s an expression which sums up my stance in this area rather nicely – “Nothing about us without us”.

Finally, consider whether this statement might be true: It’s already difficult enough for a non-mainstream individual to participate honestly and openly when they know they’re on equal footing with everyone else, without setting up an arena where they’re likely to feel like David negotiating with Goliath.

Third, in the article, I see far too much focus on goal-setting, based on what seems to be an assumption that a solution can be (and/or should be) known in advance, providing a ‘goal’ and/or outcomes towards which funding can be productively directed. In all fairness, on reading the first words in the title – “strategic philanthropy” – I realised immediately that this assumption was highly likely to exist in the body of the article. One might reasonably ask whether it is even possible to have a strategy for achieving an unknown “what”? Regardless of the answer to that question – and I would actually argue that strategising is indeed possible, even though having a fixed strategy isn’t – the fact remains that, in the complex domain, goal-setting is rarely wise.

Even if we can deeply understand what the problems are (which is, by the way, yet another assumption unlikely to be accurate at the outset of trying to figure out what’s going on), that doesn’t mean – not even slightly! – that we have any idea whatsoever regarding what the “solutions” are. Any ‘goal’ we set under such circumstances is an illusion.

(Side note – from the perspective of someone who would love nothing more than to be able to work in complexity, who is not afraid of the endless uncertainty, loving acceptance of failure, and continuous ego-release required to do so, how very, very ironic it is that all the sources of funding I’ve found so far demand, as preconditions for funding, the very opposite of everything I’m pointing out here! Philanthropists in general, it seems, wish to support existing organisations which have clearly defined plans to solve wicked problems by finding their root causes and reporting their progress against pre-agreed outcomes. Often enough, even the ‘categories’ in which one might receive funding, and the ‘metrics’, such as popularity of the idea, are predefined as well! As an ex project manager I understand this desire for certainty and control, I really do, but one day, eventually, surely, hopefully, we’ll pay a bit more heed to reality. In the meantime, resources will continue to be wasted en masse by those willing to chase chimaeras.)

“One has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it.”

― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Enough digression. Time to get back on topic.

When we set a solution-goal before fully understanding the nature of the problem at hand, in its context, what we’re actually doing is looking back at previous experience and assuming that the problem will be in all important respects the same as it was in our beliefs about that previous experience, even though we’re actually dealing with a different context and starting conditions can change everything in the complex domain. Worse, we’re often also assuming that the solution to a problem is some sort of common-sense symmetrical opposite/mirror to the problem. As above, so below. As to the left, so to the right. Positive one cancels out negative one.

This is all counterproductive in the extreme because in the complex domain, “solutions” aren’t anti-problems. There is no anti-racism pill or training that can be given to “racist individuals” as a “solution” to racism, for example. Racism is an emergent symptom of many, many different underlying systems interacting with each other. In each case, the continuously adaptive interplay of living systems from which racist behaviours emerge will be different.

We’d be better off taking a more holistic approach, undertaking a variety of activities such as:

  • curiously developing a multi-perspective and context-embedded understanding of the problem/s
  • iteratively describing, with increasing clarity, the outcomes we don’t want, and working out which systems (and there are usually many) are involved in the emergence of those outcomes
  • developing a clear understanding of why we don’t want those outcomes … and making sure the systems don’t need those outcomes (e.g. Are we quite sure that immortality would be a good idea? Or does death perhaps serve a higher purpose?)
  • understanding what the underlying needs of all the living ‘stakeholders’ in those systems are
  • experimenting to discover what the whole of the systems of systems need in order to meet those needs
  • honestly and transparently reporting on what is learned, as it is learned, and with the benefit of hindsight … continually weaving an ever-richer living narrative

In summary … I believe that the wisest philanthropists, who care more about life and humanity than they do about metrics, illusions of certainty, or continuing to feel needed and appreciated in their role as philanthropists, will themselves step out into the unknown and support those of us working at the edges who truly love complexity.