Key Points

Strategic philanthropy requires striking a balance between two extremes. On one side is unilateral agenda-setting by the foundation and excessive reliance on its own intellectual frameworks and methods. On the other side is too much deference to competing voices from the field, with the risk that funding will be haphazard and incoherent. This article describes how the Delaware River Watershed Initiative, supported by the William Penn Foundation, has struggled to position itself between these two extremes.

Based on an evaluation conducted during the first four years of the initiative, the article examines four interrelated tensions: upfront planning versus emergent strategy, top-down versus bottom-up management, strategic focus versus opportunistic flexibility, and ambitious aspirations versus realistic expectations.

After discussing how each of these tensions has played out as the initiative has evolved, the article concludes by suggesting that the role of evaluation in strategic philanthropy is not just to provide feedback on the progress of a strategy, but also to facilitate a learning process to help participants clarify their strategy by reconciling such tensions.

Open Access