MacKenzie Scott has made headlines for her fairly cryptic announcements that she has made several hundred grants collectively worth a few billion dollars. Her decisions seem out of the blue, even to grantees themselves, who find that without any application, they have suddenly been given a large grant — often the largest grant in their organization’s history.

Given the scale of her giving, one wouldn’t be surprised if Scott employed a foundation with a staff the size of the Gates Foundation, well over 1,000 people. Yet Scott has made all these grants with outside consultants and apparently no permanent foundation staff of her own.

To make matters even more interesting, Scott makes these grants with no strings attached, writing that “teams with experience on the front lines of challenges will know best how to put the money to good use.”

Scott’s way of making philanthropic decisions has caused some raised eyebrows. But Ruth Levine of IDinsight (and formerly with the Hewlett Foundation) now argues that far from showing the uselessness of “strategies, proposals, and reports,” Scott has shown that foundations should “engage in intensive due diligence,” and that her “selection of grantees would not have been possible without the knowledge developed and shared by other funders with specialized expertise.”

After all, Scott may not have an official foundation staff, but her December 2020 blog post noted that she had external advisors that talked to “hundreds of field experts, funders, and non-profit leaders,” including “hundreds of emails and phone interviews, and thousands of pages of data analysis.” This process started with 6,490 organizations as potential grantees, did deeper research on 822, and then weeded it down to 384 grantees based on potential impact, management teams, and the like.

To Levine, this process shows that far from being useless, the traditional philanthropic practices of “due diligence, monitoring, and evaluation can play a major role,” and that foundations should share that information with a “a broad range of funders, rather than only with themselves.”

I couldn’t agree more as to the value of due diligence and sharing information. Indeed, I have thought for years that foundations should mutually share their insights on potential grantees and philanthropic causes.

Even so, I wonder if Levine overstates the case. Yes, MacKenzie Scott believes in due diligence into grantees’ capabilities and their likelihood of producing impact. But what about the original question — does philanthropy need to have so many “strategies, proposals, and reports,” none of which Scott seems to be using?

Corporate-style strategies are probably useful when the objective is narrow, clearly measurable, and achievable in a finite period of time — such as when philanthropists funded the campaign to legalize gay marriage.

But when philanthropy is trying to address society’s wicked problems — poverty, health, social justice, etc. — it’s hard to point to any evidence that strategic philanthropy is any better than MacKenzie Scott’s approach.

Read the full article about strategic philanthropy by Stuart Buck at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.