Resilience in Foundation Strategy
September 2006 | Craft paper


A foundation that seeks to bring about improvements in policies and institutions faces a daunting task. In view of the complexity of social institutions and the unpredictability of events, it may seem surprising that any philanthropic action would have any significant effects in the areas we have identified for change. Yet foundations do undertake social and policy change with grantmaking strategies that try to take into account the complicated policy and societal environments in which they operate. The MacArthur Foundation has developed strategies in its chosen areas by articulating theories of change, developing tactics, and designing grantmaking programs that constitute a strategy for change—whether to conserve biodiversity, to reduce maternal mortality, to change the treatment of youth in the justice system, to transform public housing, or to improve schools.

To achieve their goals, these grantmaking strategies need to take account of the larger social and political context, the complexity of social organizations, and the processes of ongoing adaptation already taking place as such organizations respond to their constituents, search for resources, and change leadership. Successful foundation strategies, therefore, are likely to build in their own adaptive mechanisms — or resiliency — to account for environmental factors or to anticipate institutional responses to the foundation’s funding.

As foundation officers, we generally seek out those leaders and organizations best equipped, by virtue of their own aspirations and resources, to further the Foundation’s goals. However, as we observed in an earlier paper on Foundations and Public Policy, we are mindful of the “messiness” of the policymaking process. Unanticipated changes and unforeseen events can test our strategies, and contribute to unexpected outcomes, and even failure in some cases. In the face of the vicissitudes of societal change and policy messiness, what factors do we look for in a grantmaking strategy that contributes to its resilience?

The resilience of a strategy is the magnitude of disturbance that can be absorbed before the strategy needs to be reconsidered, modified or abandoned. What elements can we build into the design of a strategy that would help to buffer it from unanticipated changes, while still permitting boldness and a desirable degree of risk? Some such changes could include leadership succession, drastic swings in financial resources, resistance to change, skepticism, criticism or complaints from constituencies, or dramatic events and accidents. 

It is important to note that the institutions we seek to change may themselves be resilient and may adapt to the changes we introduce in ways we cannot predict. By awarding a major grant to a particular school district, for example, we may raise the reputation of the school superintendent, making him or her more attractive to school boards in other localities. One of those other districts may hire away the superintendent with whom we have been working, resulting in leadership succession, changed conditions and perhaps reduced effectiveness of our grant in the original district.

It also is important to remember that the incentives that the Foundation offers grantees are just one set of many to which an organization needs to respond to carry out its mission. This is especially observable in universities, and particularly in those that enjoy considerable wealth and reputation already. During the 1990s, grants awarded through MacArthur’s Peace Program for interdisciplinary training fellowships at leading universities in the U.S. and the U.K. are illustrative. Some Institutions with fewer resources for international security programs were much more responsive to the foundation’s interests in providing multidisciplinary and broad training for their students. While others supported very good students, their MacArthur-supported programs were not nearly as venturesome, nor as visible on their respective campuses. With a greater level and range of resources available at these institutions, MacArthur’s grants were competing with many other pressures for change.

To help staff consider the issue of resilience in design of Foundation strategies, this paper presents an initial list of characteristics of a resilient effort. It applies the thinking about characteristics of resilience to two current initiatives. It also suggests a series of questions that program staff may wish to ask during the design of new or modification of existing strategies. However, it is important not to equate desired qualities of resilience with an aversion to risk. Foundations have the luxury, indeed the obligation, to take risks that other institutions should or may not. Risk-taking is desirable, because it often leads to innovation, to new solutions to enduring problems. It enhances creativity. Therefore, risk often is at the core of a grantmaking strategy; it should however be taken consciously, after careful consideration of at least the elements described in this paper and a consensus decision that the potential rewards outweigh the consequences of a strategy design with fewer characteristics of resiliency.


Some characteristics of a resilient strategy

What have we learned from past experience about the resiliency of strategies? Are there characteristics or organizational processes that will promote resilience in foundation strategies? A beginning list, based on observations from the Foundation and from other fields, would include diversity; flexibility; attractiveness to other institutions and participants; decentralization/fragmentation coupled with information-sharing and cooperation; and distinct and overlapping social networks.


In designing a foundation grantmaking strategy, diversity means that several tactics are employed in a strategy. For example, a foundation might include these several tactics in a single strategy: provide funds to existing institutions, help start up new institutions that would even compete with existing organizations, support collaborative networks of action or research, and support individual projects, as well. Because the social and policy processes in which we intervene are not well understood, our own interventions, while based on good judgment, are subject to the same vicissitudes and uncertainties that all organizations face. Employing several different tactics will make it more likely that one or several aspects of the strategy will succeed in bringing about desired change.

For example, if the Foundation seeks to stimulate innovative thinking and practice in a field, it might provide grants to individuals, as well as to institutions. While individuals within policy institutes, civic organizations, or universities may come up with new ideas, the peer pressure or groupthink in such settings may inhibit the most venturesome expressions. Independent researchers, journalists, or those in transition from one to another institution, may feel relatively freer to explore neglected paths. This was some of the thinking behind the design of the Peace and International Cooperation program in 1984. Funding for individual research projects was provided through several venues—through an array of university programs, through a leading research and training organization and through a Foundation-administered grants competition for individuals. Each element of the strategy presented advantages and disadvantages; taken together, they contributed to the resilience of the Foundation’s strategy.

Flexibility or adaptability

An ability to adjust strategies, to take account of unanticipated events, of changes in organizational leaders, of complaints from constituents, and the like, is a hallmark of any successful strategy. Understanding that, if anything can go wrong, it will, foundations can anticipate that the application of any given tactic or strategy will bring about unintended outcomes, as well as desired change. The trick is to be open to learning and adaptation. Foundation staff must be able to learn quickly from unanticipated events, to bring in more people, ideas, or resources, and to make changes in the strategy to bring about the desired results.

In biodiversity conservation, efforts to set aside large tracts of land and isolate them from nearby communities constituted a major strategy to preserve biological diversity of flora and fauna in developing countries. In some regions, however, such set asides prevented local peoples from supporting themselves through their traditional farming and gathering practices. While ecosystems were being protected to some extent, this so-called “fortress approach” undermined political and local support for conservation efforts.

To achieve the results they sought, environmentalists changed elements of their overall strategy to include attention to the ongoing needs of people who depended on parks for their livelihoods. In a number of cases, these adaptations produced better results—illegal poaching decreased, and species were better protected. Including a more diverse group in the planning for parks, making the strategy more attractive to a range of people, and demonstrating flexibility that took account of the existing dependence of communities on forests, led to a successful adaptation of the strategy to preserve biodiversity. Rather than emphasizing preservation (attempting to leave ecosystems in their presumed pristine state), the strategy came to emphasize conservation (making use of forests in ways that sustained habitats and species).

The strategy demonstrated resilience in the face of unanticipated consequences by incorporating diversity, showing flexibility, and developing and relying on overlapping social networks of indigenous peoples, scientists, and park service and government personnel to share information and coordinate efforts. But the uneven results even from this adaptation is the focus of research projects to understand what further adaptations might be required to develop a strategy that can cope with pressures from global economic and ecological change.

Magnetism or attractiveness to other participants

Resilience in a foundation strategy is more likely to be achieved if the foundation can engage and attract a large number and range of leaders in both devising and implementing a strategy. The greater the number of people involved who understand and see the utility of the foundation’s plans, and the more who feel an ownership of the strategy, the more likely it will be that changes in the direction of the Foundation’s goals will take place. Even those who may not receive funding can be inspired and galvanized by a foundation’s actions. Therefore, for example, Requests for Proposals widely distributed to relevant research and policy communities can help to advertise the foundation’s goals and intentions, even if only some are successful in receiving funding.

The use of expert committees to advise the foundation in evaluating applications, as well as in formulating strategy, can also serve to attract new people and ideas to the process. The Peace program’s grants competition, mentioned earlier, used selection committees to review and recommend project proposals. Their participation in the Foundation’s process gave leading scholars and journalists a more immediate sense of the Foundation’s goals, and through their networks, helped to recruit applicants and future selection committee members. The mix of participants changed from year to year, so no group “captured” the Foundation’s agenda. The participants in the process helped inform a broad audience about the Foundation’s goals, and helped create an attractive community for new entrants into the international peace and security field.

In this way, as well, the credibility of the foundation is enhanced and the foundation serves as a magnet for information and learning about the changes that take place. A similar individual research and writing competition was introduced in the former Soviet Union when MacArthur first established its program there in 1992, and selection committee members were chosen carefully—for their reputations, as well as for their intellect and integrity. Because MacArthur was not known in the region, we were careful to establish our credibility as an independent, nongovernmental institution that valued innovation and diversity, and sought to contribute to positive change during a chaotic time. Our choices sent signals through the region about the Foundation’s interests and intentions, and the committee served as a magnet that drew in the kinds of people, projects, and ideas that we were interested in learning about and in supporting.

Decentralization or fragmentation coupled with interconnectedness

Evidence from case studies of resilient cities suggests that while diversity within a system contributes to resilience, interconnectedness among diverse organizations and individuals is also necessary for successful adaptation. In comparing the histories of economic development in Youngstown, Ohio, and Allentown, Pennsylvania, for example, Sean Safford found differences between the two towns in the overlap between economic and civic leadership networks (“Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown: Social Embeddedness and the Transformation of the Rust Belt,” 2004). Where civic networks duplicated civic networks (Youngstown), the town was not able to rebound from the decline of the steel industry beginning in the 1960s. Where economic networks and civic networks did not overlap, and in fact, were quite distinct (Allentown), the city was able to adapt to the decline of the steel industry by incubating and attracting new industries linked to a growing biotechnology and microelectronics economy in the Lehigh Valley region. Safford concludes that the civic organizations in Allentown may have played a role in connecting the otherwise fragmented economic organizations in the town, and in the larger region, to develop a new base for economic development.

This example suggests that a resilient strategy requires micro-level diversity combined with interconnectedness, through information-sharing and communication among distinct and partially overlapping networks. For a foundation, a strategy that includes funding for diverse institutions, projects, and individuals will also benefit from enabling grant recipients of several kinds and perspectives to develop information-sharing networks. Some of this can be accomplished with foundation-sponsored meetings, but the more resilient strategy would provide for the development of new networks and connections without the continuing participation of the foundation.

A further conclusion from Safford’s study suggested that when networks are centralized, they might be too brittle for actors to adapt to the new conditions. Centralizing communications through a single organization—whether the foundation, or another entity—may not engender the resilience that we seek.

Distinct and overlapping networks

New research on social networks and how they diffuse information and practices is providing new insight into the adoption of change. These are exciting developments, and the findings will be useful to foundations as they engage in strategic change efforts. A discussion of social networking science and its applications is beyond the scope of this discussion paper. A couple of observations, however, are useful here.

First, and perhaps even too obvious to mention, is that networks focus on the ties and relationships between and among individuals. Although there is informal and tacit knowledge about the power of networks—in seeking jobs and influencing decisions, for example—there is less formal understanding about the strength and extent of networks in shaping policy agendas and bringing about change. Yet much of human action is embedded in social networks that transfer information, provide status, influence thinking, and propel action. As more is learned about the nature of social networks, those interested in social change will be able to tap into this knowledge as they develop strategies.

Second, the perspective of social networks suggests that resilience is linked to diversity within social networks. The logic may also be too obvious to state here, but goes something like this: if resilience is to be fostered, then anticipating disturbances or surprises is key. The broader the range of information and experience that organizations can draw upon in developing change strategies, the more likely the strategies will take account of those possibilities and build in tactics that address the possible “surprises.” Foundation strategy is developed by staff members who, in turn, are embedded in their own networks, both within the organization and in professional and other networks outside of the foundation. Ensuring that the foundation taps into the varieties of information, experience, and perspectives available through these several sets of networks will likely enhance the resilience of the strategies that are developed.

Breadth, diversity, and distinctiveness of networks are not sufficient, however. Observations from other fields of study suggest that some overlap in these networks contributes to resilience. Overlap provides a means of transmitting knowledge through the diversity of networks to support a developing consensus among several communities and leaders. Such consensus, even if partial, supports the successful development and implementation of a foundation strategy.

Example and illustrative questions

In addition to the examples throughout the paper, it may be instructive to apply the thinking in the paper to two strategies in the Foundation’s domestic program: The Learning Partnership and Models for Change: Systems Reform in Juvenile Justice (PDF). The first was a school improvement effort designed to bring about district-level reform in several mid-sized, urban school districts that the Foundation brought to a close when it became apparent that its changes for success had diminished. The second is a multi-state initiative to improve systems of juvenile justice and to stimulate broad engagement in juvenile justice system reform across the country.

Finally, this section of the paper contains a series of questions, based on the characteristics described above, that foundation staff may wish to consider in the design of program strategies. The questions do not constitute a rigid checklist, nor does this paper suggest that all characteristics of resilience must be incorporated into every strategy. Rather, they are a device to help the Foundation make conscious choices in program design and implementation and about the trade-offs between risks and rewards that it is making.

The Learning Partnership was an effort to bring about system-level change in mid-sized school districts. Its design envisioned technical assistance to a process of reform, jointly designed with the school district that was based on a set of core principles articulated by the Foundation. Upon reflection, several key mistakes or factors that may have contributed to a lack of program resilience in the face of changes in leadership in both the district and the technical assistance team fielded by the Foundation. These include:

  • an early decision not to include a local partner or intermediary in the design
  • reliance on the school system as the primary stakeholder in the work
  • direct engagement with a limited number of actors within the school system
  • reliance on the school system to communicate the goals and tactics of the work
  • lack of clarity about the roles of each of the players in the reform effort
  • an assertion of a Foundation-designed model as the basis for reform

There were certainly an array of positive outcomes and there other issues in the design and execution of The Learning Partnership, but those listed above had the greatest effect on the resilience of the effort. There were many important consequences of these mistakes. The effort suffered from a lack of understanding of the local context and a champion for the work that was independent of the school district. When district leadership changed, there were few individuals in the system with an understanding of the work or the power or interest to make the case for its continuation to new leaders. There was limited understanding of the project’s ambitions and no sense of a shared undertaking among a broad group of participants. Finally, the lack of clarity about the role of various participants required a redefinition and renegotiation with each change in leadership.

Models for Change has benefited from an analysis of the design and execution of The Learning Partnership. It has the following attributes that make it more likely that the effort will withstand anticipated and unanticipated changes. These include:

  • multiple locations with a variety of characteristics within which to bring about change
  • local organizations in each site to drive the design and execution of the work and to make sure that we are well-informed about local dynamics
  • engagement with many actors in the system, including state officials, county and parish-level leaders, representatives from the court, police, prosecutors and advocates
  • planning for communications about the goals and tactics of the work at the national, state and local levels
  • a decision to harness and accelerate the existing reform efforts of states

These characteristics of the strategy have resulted in broad-based engagement in and excitement about Models for Change, a increasingly shared understanding among many players of the ambitions and tactics of the work, an appreciation of the Foundation’s respect for the value and effect of each state’s past efforts at reform, and champions for the work that will continue their support after leadership changes.

Illustrative questions

Area of interest:

  • Is there something about the area of interest or the system targeted for reform that diminishes the potential for substantial change or significant impact?
  • Is philanthropy an effective or appropriate vehicle for stimulating or bringing about change in the particular area of interest?


  • Does the strategy design contain several pathways to success? Do we understand fully the advantages and disadvantages of each approach? If one fails, are others sufficiently different that implementation of the strategy can proceed?
  • Do the aspirations of individuals and organizations selected to perform the work align closely with the goals of the Foundation’s strategy?
  • Are a sufficiently large number, diverse range and overlapping sets of people engaged in the design of the strategy, and in its anticipated implementation? Are there sufficient information-sharing, communications and dissemination tactics in place to ensure a common understanding of the goals and substance of the work among those involved in the area of interest or targeted system? Will they enhance learning among the participants, and stimulate new connections?
  • Do we understand the social and political environment and the culture in which the work is to take place? Have we identified the individuals and social networks whose information, status, influence and leadership can help or hinder the progress of the work and success of the strategy?
  • Have we considered the likely and unlikely but possible consequences of implementing the strategy? Have we identified possible responses?

For the Foundation:

  • Are we so wedded to a particular strategy design or definition of success that we may not be able to learn from challenges and failure, adapt to change or welcome a modified outcome?
  • Did we give adequate weight to the views of skeptics in the design of a strategy?
  • Have we put mechanisms in place to ensure an appropriate level of understanding about the progress of work? Have we considered documentation and other ways to get on-the-ground intelligence that is independent of information from primary grantees? Does discrete phasing of the work make sense, to ensure periodic formal consideration of progress and the effectiveness of a strategy?
  • Are we prepared to act quickly enough to modify strategy, bring additional or alternate human resources to bear, or increase funding?



Designing robust and resilient strategies for change is one of the challenges that foundation officers face. While it may still be more an art than a science, we have identified several elements or characteristics of a resilient strategy: diversity, flexibility or adaptability; attractiveness to others; fragmentation coupled with interconnectedness; and the use of distinctive but overlapping networks in formulating and implementing grantmaking strategies. This list of characteristics and accompanying questions is by no means definitive, and we will continue to learn and add to the list as we evaluate the outcomes of a variety of strategies across the Foundation’s areas of interest.

We also will seek a constructive balance between a high level of awareness of the progress of Foundation-funded work and any challenges that it encounters, and engagement in the work itself. In that way, we can knowledgeably evaluate skepticism or criticism, consider if or when to modify elements of a strategy, and increase or reallocate human and financial resources. We also will have appropriate information if we choose to ask the more fundamental question posed in an earlier discussion paper on Value Added, Comparative Advantage and Diminishing Returns: A Template for Judgment — When does staying the course . . . to make further incremental change cost us an opportunity to make substantial change in another or new . . . activity?

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