Follow-up: Grantmaking and Intuition

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I trust everyone had a fun and enjoyable Memorial Day weekend. Last week I posted a blog entitled A Few Reflections on Grantmaking and Intuition (05/20/14). Pulling from work by cognitive scientist turned political commentator George Lakoff, I suggested that conservatives tend to use direct cause and effect thinking to address and solve social problems while liberals tend to use systemic causation. I went on to point out that in order to arrive at simple cause and effect chains, one must reduce complex systems to isolated parts no longer able to interact one with another. Such reductionism tends to prevent consideration of social problems that are embedded in complex systems, such as global warming and improving education. In general, intuition is needed to understand and address social problems that are embedded in complex systems. By design, intuition is not required when dealing with reduced systems because simple cause and effect chains are easy to grasp and work with.

Just after I made my May 20th, 2014, post on grantmaking and intuition, I read an article in the Summer 2014 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) entitled Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World by John Kania, Mark Kramer, and Patty Russell. Kania and Kramer (along with Ronald Heifetz) wrote an article for SSIR back in 2004 entitled Leading Boldly (an article that I have pointed to many times). In many respects, this new article is an update of the 2004 article. In 2004, the authors used the dichotomy technical philanthropy versus adaptive philanthropy. Suffice it to say that technical philanthropy uses direct causation whereas adaptive philanthropy uses systemic causation. In this new article, the authors use the terms strategic solutions versus emergent solutions. How confusing. I’ll stick with Lakoff: In the final analysis, it’s still conservatives using a direct causation worldview versus liberals using a systemic causation worldview. (As an aside, this same Summer 2014 issue of SSIR has a great article entitled Philanthropy in a Time of Polarization.)

All this to say that if you would like a more in depth take on grantmaking and intuition, see if you are able to read this SSIR article online by navigating to the SSIR web site. To whet your appetite, consider the following excerpt. As you read this excerpt, see if it doesn’t square with what I wrote in my May 20th, 2014, post on grantmaking and intuition (my comments in brackets):

The more foundations embrace strategic philanthropy [defined by the authors as having clear goals, data-driven strategies, heightened accountability, and rigorous evaluations], the clearer its limitations become. As practiced today, strategic philanthropy assumes outcomes arise from a linear chain of causation [my emphasis] that can be predicted, attributed, and repeated, even though we know that social change is often unpredictable, multifaceted, and idiosyncratic [thus requiring a systems perspective]. It locks funders into a rigid multiyear agenda, although the probability and desirability of achieving any given outcome waxes and wanes over time. Rigorous evaluations attempt to isolate [my emphasis] the impact of solitary interventions without effective models of dissemination. And the forced simplicity of logic models often mislead funders to overlook [e.g. filter out] the complex dynamics and interpersonal relationships among numerous nonprofit, for-profit, and government actors that determine real world events.

Complex problems, such as improving the health of a particular group of people, are entirely different. These problems are dynamic, nonlinear, and counter-intuitive. They are the result of the interplay between multiple independent factors that influence each other in ever-changing ways [which agrees with naturalistic system theory].

Allow me to end with this quote from the 2014 SSIR article that would make Jung proud:

Emergent strategy [e.g., an adaptive or systemic strategy] requires a constant process of “sensing” the environment to ensure that resources are applied where opportunities are greatest. Sensing also enables a more intuitive understanding of how various parts of the system are changing in relationship to one another in response to unanticipated interventions and exogenous events.

Just one quick comment. It’s too bad that present day advocates for such concepts as emergence, systems, and adaptation such as Kania, Kramer, and Russell, talk as if these are relatively new concepts. They are not. Ludwig von Bertalanffy, arguably the father of naturalistic systems theory, started talking about these concepts back in the late 1920s. Heck, all of these concepts are at the heart of Darwin’s theory of evolution. As I mentioned in my May 20th, 2014, post on grantmaking and intuition, Bowlby dealt with these concepts regularly. Jung too. All of these systems thinkers tried to understand complex systems, to understand how parts come together to form “wholes that work” (to use Jung’s phrase). Honestly, I have no idea why present day writers do not point out that there is a long history behind such concepts as emergence, systems, wholes, and adaptation. I guess what I’m asking is, “Why reinvent the wheel?” It’s hard enough to sell such concepts as emergence, systems, and adaptation without making them out to be new and radical when in fact these concepts have a long and illustrious history. Baffles me.