Strategy is Culture is Strategy

For many readers, and any of my students or clients, this piece will be quite familiar and covers well-trodden ground. And a number of wealth management firms have adopted what some call the Marker Method in their own philanthropy advisory work. If you are among that group, you can stop reading now. For others, this is a brief introduction to a strategy methodology I have used for many years and represents a somewhat different way to get to philanthropy decision-making. Every once in a while, it is useful to inform a new group of readers.

Customarily, a strategy process begins with spending quality time developing a “mission” and a “vision.” It is a widely used methodology and comes with quite legitimate operating assumptions – if one invests heavily up-front in developing consensus on the larger direction of a business, organization, foundation, or anything else, it will provide a constructive matrix to assess what to do and what the priorities should be.

Indeed it is useful for all of that. But I have found that it doesn’t necessarily make decision making any more efficient or easier. A foundation board may go through this process, come up with a mission statement and consensus on priorities, and then find themselves stymied, or worse, when it comes time to decide what grants to make and how.

The reason for these loggerheads is because, while one can work hard and come to a consensus on priorities, it is much harder to do so with the underlying cultural assumptions which every individual has, or if the culture of the organization is at odds with many of those who are at the decision making table.

It was years ago, when I was doing private sector consulting on strategy implementation that I learned the importance of “corporate culture.” Why were so many of the very expensive and elegant strategies of the famous high-end strategy firms gathering dust on the shelves of companies or organizations? Why, in so many cases, were so few of the recommendations actually adopted? The reasons, it became clear, were that there were rarely implementation strategies accompanying the business ones. And most often, when we looked deeper, the silence on addressing stylistic dissonance or understanding the cultural underpinnings were at the core of why implementation hadn’t taken place.

I am not here talking about group or ethnographic culture [although there may be times when they enter into the discourse] but rather individual styles. To wit:

  • Everyone might agree that education is a priority but that doesn’t specify what age level, or what topics, or what institutions or which funding intervention will prove most gratifying to a particular funder.
  • Health care can be an encompassing mission, but where and what are much harder to agree upon especially since it almost always requires a hands-off funding approach.
  • At-risk youth are a crying need that might unify a foundation board, but there is a great difference between funding advocacy and direct service. Advocacy is much longer term and harder to measure, but is more systemic; that systemic perspective may be more compelling to some. Direct service can be measured, observed, and local – that may be more satisfying to others at the same table,
  • How hands-on does one want to be with grantee organizations?
  • What if there are very different instincts on “recognition/naming/visibility?”
  • Some trustees might see their primary role to be stewards of monies entrusted to them by previous generations. Others may feel that philanthropy is not useful or even justifiable if it isn’t making a difference now.
  • What about risk tolerance?

The list goes on and on. In my experience, when a group of decision makers understand the cultural differences among those sitting around their table, it makes the decision making go more smoothly. It certainly helps remove the mystery of why someone is responding critically even when they seemed to agree on priorities just hours before. And because, especially in families, all disagreements are personal, understanding that every one of these issues is both generic to all funders and legitimate, articulating and understanding them can constructively de-personalize the process as well.

The goal of starting with “culture” is not to force a consensus but to understand where others are coming from. Eventually foundations develop an encompassing culture of their own, balancing the competing pulls and respecting the diversity in the room. Developing focus, priorities, and mission, and making effective and efficient decisions will follow more readily once this process is completed.

One final comment: I would never suggest that this method is guaranteed to work better than the more traditional methodologies. Many of my philanthropy advisor colleagues who use a more traditional approach do address these issues – just at a different point in the strategy continuum. It is my experience, though, that addressing “culture” as the first stage of a complete strategy process leads to effective decision making in a more direct and immediate way than the more traditional method.

Richard Marker teaches and advises funders from around the world through both the NYU Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education and the Wise Philanthropy Institute, both of which he founded. His blog can be found at Wise Philanthropy.