October 30, 2013

Five Traits of Adaptive Philanthropists

Five traits that Bridgespan believes exemplify the exciting new approach of adaptive philanthropy, and thus, its leaders.

By: The Bridgespan Group
Achieving success in philanthropy is never easy, and today's uncertain and constantly changing world makes doing so exponentially more difficult. It's clear that in a such a world, philanthropists cannot hold to a rigid mindset of what used to work; instead, they must embrace a flexible, more responsive approach. One such approach is adaptive philanthropy, which Susan Wolf Ditkoff, a partner and co-leader of the philanthropy practice at the Bridgespan Group, discussed in a 2011 series on the subject. An adaptive philanthropy strategy, she wrote, is marked by "a clear but flexible definition of success, clear criteria for what kinds of opportunities are in and out, nimble decision-making, an openness to new ideas, and a passionate commitment to continuous improvement."

As part of a new Bridgespan-SSIR series on adaptive philanthropy, Ditkoff further expounds on the subject and lays out five traits that Bridgespan believes exemplify this exciting new approach, and thus, its leaders:

1. Adaptive philanthropists have a clear, but flexible, definition of success.

Adaptive philanthropists have clear but flexible boundaries, as well as a definition of what success looks like, for whom, and over what timeframe. This includes taking stock of what you really care about, all of the assets at your disposal (expertise, relationships, voice), what your stakeholders say that you or your staff are really good at, and what you need to learn.

How do we measure success? Darren Walker attests to the difficulty of measuring social change
Also see: Defining “success”: Debi Brooks and Michael J. Fox measure progress in fighting Parkinson’s

2. Adaptive philanthropists have defined their philanthropic anchors, by which they are better able to judge new opportunities.

 Adaptive philanthropy defines the anchors of a funder’s strategy—what shouldn’t change in changing times—and boundaries within which investments can move to catch currents. By what criteria will you judge new opportunities that pop up and determine whether you should seize them?

Related: Know where you want to go: For the Buffetts, a clear strategy is essential
Also see: Resource allocation decisions: Risa Lavizzo-Mourey says these are some of the most difficult decisions she makes

3. Adaptive philanthropists are attuned to evidence.

Within what they care about, adaptive leaders understand deeply what evidence says about what does and doesn’t work, what’s known and unknown. This includes gold-standard evaluation evidence, where available, as well as the voices of beneficiaries or others whose mindset and behaviors funders are trying to influence.

Related: Two sides of performance measurement: Nancy Roob and EMCF measure their own performance in addition to that of its grantees
Also see: To measure philanthropic impact, Steve Hilton says you have to ‘go a few layers down’

4. Adaptive philanthropists take thoughtful risks.

If such leaders are investing in an area where much is unknown, they have a clear learning agenda and plan to experiment so that they can come down the learning curve as quickly as possible. Such a plan will define assumptions to test and important external factors that will require strategy adjustment.

Related: Risk tolerance: Laura and John Arnold are open to failure in their philanthropy
Also see: Steve McCormick tells new philanthropists to experiment

5. Adaptive philanthropists embrace risk and uncertainty, and an iterative approach to course-correction.

With clear boundaries and a goal informed by evidence, adaptive philanthropy does not assume a rigid, paint-by-numbers process to achieve that success. It requires increased comfort with risk and uncertainty. It requires rapid prototyping of ideas, with rapid feedback loops from important stakeholders—not once a year, but monthly—and offers philanthropists outside perspective on their thinking. It requires rapid decision-making, shorter cycle times on budgets and paperwork, capital that the funder can allocate flexibly to emerging opportunities throughout the year.

Related: Effective evaluation: Emmett Carson on the need for real-time information
Also see: How to define success in philanthropy: Steve Hilton warns about over-reliance on metrics

Text after each orange subhead is excerpted from "Giving That Gets Results: An Introduction." Full text is here.

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