Key Points

The impact of the inherent power imbalance in the grantmaker/grantee relationship has come into particular focus as equity and justice have become a greater priority for philanthropy. This article looks at the example of the McCune Charitable Foundation, which deliberately designed an emergent strategy approach that establishes clear goals and then created a platform to permit a reversal of that power dynamic, so that leadership for priorities comes from those closest to the work.

The authors launched a two-year project to research what emergence might look like in seven complex social-change initiatives, and how the strategy could grow agency and create more sustainable solutions in dynamic environments. When the leaders of these initiatives focused on creating the conditions for local leaders and nonprofits to decide what strategies to pursue, it tended to spur unanticipated approaches that responded to needs and opportunities in diverse, changing environments. At the same time, funders were able to establish goals while promoting “a marketplace of ideas.”

The McCune story illustrates how moving from a prescriptive strategy to an emergent one can shift the power imbalance between grantmaker and grantees, expand agency and ownership for complex social change, and potentially create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Open Access