Melissa Stevens
Executive Director, Center for Strategic Philanthropy
Health and Medical Research and Philanthropy
Melissa Stevens is the executive director of the Milken Institute's Center for Strategic Philanthropy. The Center for Strategic Philanthropy works to maximize return on philanthropic investment by ensuring that innovation used to address one social issue is translated to another, best practices and metrics guide new and existing giving programs,...
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Flawed but Powerful: Strategic Planning in Philanthropy

By: Melissa Stevens
September 12, 2017

At the Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy (CSP), we are often asked how we define “strategic philanthropy.” Is it just a buzz term? Is it purely aspirational? Or is there, indeed, some mystical output at the end of the planning rainbow? Later this month, I will be addressing this question head on, as I connect with members of the Health Research Alliance (HRA) in Chicago. HRA is a vital coalition of biomedical research funders, including nonprofits and philanthropic funders that meet regularly to compare notes and share lessons-learned on a range of topics, including strategic planning.

As I have been reflecting on my work with family foundations and individual philanthropists over the last decade with FasterCures and CSP, two strategic “truisms” have surfaced: 

1) no plan is perfect

2) no planning process is ever complete

As unsatisfying and incomplete as the planning process may be, there is no way around it. We have found it to be indispensable in all sectors, especially in the search for medical cures where philanthropic capital can often have an outsized impact. Philanthropy accounts for approximately 3 percent of all investment into health research and development (R&D) in the U.S. annually. While proportionately smaller, it is disproportionally mighty. It is a unique asset class with a higher risk appetite. It is also comparatively more nimble, flexible, and patient, given that it can withstand a longer time horizon.  

A philanthropic strategic plan can guide the allocation of all types of capital—financial, human, and social—to ensure these assets are being put to the highest and best use over a specific timeframe. The ability to prudently plan is imperative when starting a new foundation, initiating a novel program, or pivoting in response to developments in the field. It can also serve as a roadmap for decision-making, accountability, and measuring success. Below are some guidelines we find helpful when implementing the planning process.

Define Your Vision and Mission

Setting a strategy starts first and foremost with defining your philanthropic goals which are captured through your vision and mission. Your vision is the end goal—such as a world free of disease, or a world where disease is curable, chronic, or manageable. Your mission summarizes how to do that. This becomes your north star as you set priorities and evaluate funding opportunities. The mission should be broad enough to accommodate adjustments in the strategy, but specific enough to define and communicate your work to external stakeholders clearly.

Identify Unmet Needs

Foundation leaders have the luxury to step back, look at the big picture, and understand the dynamics of the entire medical research system. This affords a unique perspective to identify the root causes (not just symptoms) that may slow medical progress. Foundation leaders should also engage voices and thought partners, from experts in the field to innovators from outside, as well as seek diverse perspectives from across stages of research, sectors, disciplines, tenures, and backgrounds.  

It is best to think about needs in terms of gaps in the science, but also the system. For instance, you may need to address gaps in the science like improving understanding of the role of specific proteins, finding genetic drivers, or identifying therapeutic targets. But you may also need better model systems, organized patient communities, or regulatory guidance to enable great science to move through the system.

Map Your Stakeholders

To know how philanthropy can be best used, it is important to understand who is doing what and how well. You will want to understand the scope and priorities of government, industry, academics, nonprofits, and public-private partnerships. Are others addressing the unmet needs you’ve identified? If so, how can your funding be complementary to these other funders? How can philanthropy be used to reduce risk to unlock or influence other funders? How can you coordinate and collaborate?

Look at the Problem First and Tool Second

Once you have identified the unmet needs, then explore how and when to use a full suite of tools—from grants to impact investment, and from awareness to advocacy—to advance your philanthropic goals. For instance, even within a grant program, you may want to consider different award mechanisms to match the scale and scope of the research you want to advance. You may also want to explore research contracts to address systems issues, such as those that can fund Contract Research Organizations (CRO), industry, and technology providers to build bespoke tools and resources for the field.

Measure What Matters

It is important to define your desired impact upfront and to determine efficacy metrics to understand if progress is being made towards achieving that impact. Consider metrics outside of the traditional like number of grants dispersed or number of publications. Rather, focus on patient-relevant outcomes. And beware of the “metrics mania” where more emphasis is placed on achieving outcomes than impact. As Albert Einstein said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Walk the Walk

Strategic plans were not meant to sit on the shelf. Think about how to use them on a regular basis to track progress with senior staff, your board, and other constituents. Plans must be updated periodically (say, every three to five years) or upon any major changes to the organization (e.g., leadership change) or within the surrounding environment (e.g., funding, policy, stakeholder, etc.).

Done right, strategic planning can help you better to allocate your resources, energy, and communities to places and efforts that matter. The above enumerates some top-line tips that can help. But I can affirm one last planning truth—you never stop learning. I look forward to the dialogue later this month in Chicago; since, every time I gather to examine the planning process, I always learn something new. I will be sure to share whatever I think may be useful so, until next time, watch this space.




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