January 15, 2016

Stage 3: Swinging for the Fences

Some philanthropists stay in the experimenting phase with the bulk of their resources. Others get frustrated with the results they’re seeing, or get excited by the small-scale results they have funded, and decide to attempt larger-scale change. Such a move requires a well-informed and defined strategy (deeply informed by grantees and others in the field), a clear sense of what works and what is being tested, the right set of aligned partners, and realistic assessments of your progress against the results you want to see achieved. The more you listen to grantees and the field, and use what you’ve learned to adjust your course, the more likely you are to achieve the change you hope to see in the world.

You are in this stage if…

  • You have a well-informed and clear strategy for how you will achieve success.
  • You are making grant decisions according to your strategy.
  • You are assessing your progress against the results you hope to achieve.

Questions to ask

  • What have I learned about what works?
  • How can I use my resources to the best possible effect?
  • What do my grantees and beneficiaries really think about my approach?
  • How can I improve as a funder?

Things to do

  • Assess what is and is not working with your grants by listening to beneficiaries, grantees and other experts in the field.
  • Continue to refine your strategy, based on experience—lessons learned from your past successes and mistakes.
  • Continue to fund grantees that are aligned with the results you seek; for longstanding grantees, deepen your relationships and identify additional supports (beyond money) they may need.
  • “Evangelize”—share what you have learned with the field.

Your goals for this stage

  • Demonstrate progress against the results you are holding yourself accountable for. Or, perhaps you achieve your full vision of success!


At this stage, a common trap is failing to solicit outside perspectives and help. It’s important to seek feedback about your efforts, because you are unlikely to hear bad news and receive constructive input unless you explicitly ask for it. Excellence in philanthropy must be self-imposed because philanthropy is exempt from the kinds of accountability imposed on businesses and government. There are no markets responding to your actions; there are no voters pressuring you to change your approach. How to do this well? First of all, ask! You are far more likely to gain constructive feedback from the field if you engage in direct conversations, and, in particular, if you are willing to be candid about where you have made mistakes . Second, engage deeply with your grantees to understand what they really need to succeed. It could be that there are relatively simple things you could provide that would make a big difference.

Another trap, even with a solid strategy, is knowing when to stay the course and when to adjust. It is difficult to stay on track, and refuse to be distracted. Of course, you want to be responsive to new information and ensure you—and your strategy—are getting better over time. One way to help do this is to review your decision-making process. This process should help align with what you are trying to achieve, while also allowing you to be flexible to incorporate new information as it arises.

Example Journey: David and Lucile Packard Foundation

The experience of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation shows why it is vital to learn and adapt as you go. Packard has long supported conservation; the goal of its marine fisheries program is to improve the health of ocean ecosystems and wild fish stocks. In 1999 the foundation launched Seafood Choices, an initiative to increase the demand for and supply of sustainable seafood. Because there was little evidence to indicate which elements of this program would be most effective, Packard experimented: It seeded the field and supported a host of organizations engaged in activities ranging from raising consumer awareness to encouraging fishermen worldwide to adopt sustainable practices.

Packard stepped back in 2004 to evaluate these early efforts. The foundation’s leaders and staff listened to academics, researchers, and critical industry players, and pored over media, market, and funding reports. Among the most important findings was that sustainability was increasingly prominent globally—particularly among large seafood retailers and wholesalers—even if consumer behavior didn’t yet reflect that. The finding validated Packard’s efforts to influence the buying practices of large U.S. retailers. It also prompted the foundation to shift some of its resources away from costly consumer-education efforts to promoting fishery certification, where they had potential for greater results.

Three years later the foundation embarked on another round of evaluation and reflection. Once again, the findings both validated the wisdom of existing efforts and pointed to the need for course corrections. The number of fisheries that were either certified or in full assessment had increased from 13 in 2003 to 117 in 2007, and interest in sustainability was rising sharply among North American retailers. Wal-Mart, for example, gave the issue a huge push in 2006 when it announced a commitment to sourcing sustainable seafood. But as important as the role of large retailers was in creating a market for sustainable fish, it wasn’t enough. The suppliers and processors that link fishermen to buyers had to be part of any change effort—which meant that Packard would have to bring in new partners and experiment with new ways of investing.

Excerpted from the Harvard Business Review article "Galvanizing Philanthropy."
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