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Reflections on strategic planning

Developing a strategic plan for a philanthropy is a balancing act.

As funders we have significant influence over the viability and sustainability of civil society projects and organisations. Our strategies can facilitate success for some movements for change and withhold it from others. For all our talk and efforts to shift power, the fact is we still hold plenty.

Since entering the sector a little over a year ago, I’ve had numerous conversations with civil society leaders who feel thwarted by the incentive to contort their priorities to match funders’ strategies, or who struggle to generate interest in their work because it doesn’t fall within funders’ focus areas.

Their frustration is understandable. Our access to resources does not give us a superior understanding of the most pressing problems or the best solutions for people and planet. In fact, some would argue that precisely the opposite is the case!

The solution isn’t for philanthropy to embark upon a scatter-gun free for all. We need to understand and communicate our parameters so grant seekers don’t waste precious time chasing funding opportunities that will never eventuate. We are also accountable to the public. Money held by trusts and foundations is public money – we benefit from generous, preferential tax treatment on the basis that we contribute to the public good. Accordingly, we have a duty to consult, act with care and keep an eye on our effectiveness and impact.

Acknowledging our influence and ensuring we remain flexible, responsive and accountable were key considerations when the Reichstein Foundation went into its strategic planning process in 2023.

To help us navigate the terrain we turned to our grant partners and other stakeholders and incorporated their feedback on the external environment, where our approach is working and where we could improve. Their insights were invaluable in guiding our strategic direction and we’ve adopted an ongoing practice of listening and accountability.

We were also inspired by Gara La Marche’s thoughtful article, In Defense of Unstrategic Philanthropy. La Marche points out that some of the best grants he’s ever made were serendipitous and spontaneous, rather than formally strategic. This tracks with the Reichstein Foundation’s experience over the last 50 years, during which time we’ve had numerous strategic plans, but always sought to hold them lightly.

Some of our most meaningful grants – the establishment of the Alliance for Gambling Reform, early support for the Victorian AIDS Council, funding to facilitate the organising efforts of survivors of institutional sexual abuse – were driven not by our funding “buckets” but by opportunities for change brought about by extraordinary community sector leaders.

La Marche also writes that “whatever the value of strategic plans, what counts above all in philanthropy, as in life, are values. If those are clear, they will be a far better blueprint for action than any grant guidelines.”

It’s true that since landing our strategic plan in December 2023, the values that we articulated in it have proven just as useful in everyday decision-making as the thematic priorities and approaches.

As La Marche reflects, “not all wisdom, not even most of it, resides in foundation staff and boards”. Recognising this reality is crucial as we strive to design and deliver strategies that are relevant, just and effective.