Aligning Your Philanthropic Operating Model with Your Goals

Philanthropies — be it private foundations, corporate and family funders, LLC’s, or other vehicles for giving — often struggle with the same set of fundamental questions: Are we best leveraging our resources and capabilities to not only fulfill our mission but also bring transformational change to the people and communities who need it most? What kinds of decision-making frameworks could help us have that greater purpose and impact? And how do we make these decisions as quickly and efficiently as possible?

The idea of operating archetypes was born in response. Developed by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA) along with members of the Theory of the Foundation Learning Collaborative and dozens of funders and thought partners around the world, operating archetypes present a new analytical tool for reflection, alignment, and action. The idea is that a philanthropy’s operating archetype helps an organization articulate exactly what it seeks to achieve and how it deploys resources, capacities, talent, and relationships to achieve that vision and strategy. This, in turn, can inform better decision making across the organization.

Being an impactful and responsive funder is not simply dependent on what one does and why. It is equally important to consider how you achieve change and who you employ to implement the work. To that end, one of the most significant challenges facing funders internally is aligning talent and capabilities with operating models, mission, and impact.

Operating archetypes can help funders better understand where they are (current state), where they want to go (aspirational state), how they compare to other players and their unique position in the ecosystem. They can help funders map potential gaps. And, they can create a shared language for evaluating an organization’s expertise, talents and capabilities.

Each of the operating archetypes is defined by a set of core attributes. These were developed and honed through a multi-year iterative process, including deep listening sessions and field testing with funders, grantees, and thought partners; quantitative and qualitative data collection; and client work. They represent core questions any funder needs to be able to answer with clarity and confidence:

  • Reason/Value Proposition. What do you do and why?
  • Resources/What You Lead With. What is the primary asset—financial or non-financial—used to fulfill mission?
  • Key Capabilities/Skills.What are your top skills, areas of expertise, or capabilities?
  • Equity. How do you include the voices most affected and share power to advance equity?
  • Response/Activities. What do you do to tackle the problem and/or advance a solution?
  • Primary Audience. For whom do you do it?
  • Community Served (if different from primary audience). For whom do you do it?
  • Relationships/Alliances. With whom do you do it?
  • Impact Assessment. Where do you look for results?

Building on these attributes as a foundation, RPA has identified eight distinct operating archetypes:

Talent agencies seek out, strengthen, and promote leading individual or organizational change agents who are closest to the issues they seek to remedy, focusing more on their potential rather than on their programmatic goals or strategies. Talent agencies often use open competitions and talent identification processes to expand the range of changemakers and to increase unexpected ideas and players from underrepresented groups.

Think tanks apply in-house expertise and research to design policy or systemic solutions, then introduce, market, and socialize the approach to others and find implementers for those solutions. Communication is a key function for think tanks, which are typically focused on disseminating findings on complex issues to diverse audiences.

Campaign managers pull together a diverse set of players (funders, grantees, public sector, and other larger system actors) to implement complex, time-intensive solutions that often cross sectors and traditional program areas. To do this, they often create collaborative funding vehicles. Campaign managers often lean on the intangible capabilities of agility, patience, and trust to build these relationships. Having these qualities reflected in their staffing and communications enables them to navigate the broad range of viewpoints, approaches, and theories of change while building consensus around campaigns.

Field builders launch or significantly strengthen institutions to fill a gap and create a robust, vibrant ecosystem needed to address a large challenge or to advance an issue area. They grow organizations and movements through steady, largely hands-off support. In fulfilling their mission, field builders rely not only on deep internal expertise specific to the target field but also on an extensive external ecosystem of experts, implementing partners, and communities. Similar to other archetypes, Field Builders rely on a robust communications function.

Venture catalysts provide early, often unrestricted, funding to organizations or interventions that are new or have little proven track record. They often use open competitions to source ideas and rely on extensive networks of external experts to assess and formulate needs/ problems, goals, and strategies. Venture catalysts embrace flexibility, experimentation, and risk to facilitate untested solutions take root and deliver meaningful social impact. They leverage a variety of funding tools, including grantmaking and impact investment. This archetype requires a focus on convening power to bring a diverse group of voices together.

Designers leverage internal expertise to design programs and approaches. Starting with an understanding of the context based on research and interaction, and with end users in mind, they prototype, iterate, and communicate to engage and influence end users. Designers tend to work in areas where other solutions are absent. However, even in this context, Designers consider how solitary or internally driven interventions will affect stakeholders. That makes extensive landscape research and assessment — including conversations with affected populations, experts, and other funders — crucial to ensure that the program design will tackle an actual unfilled need.

Underwriters are institutional or private funders who provide “big bet” support to major institutions (often cultural, medical, or educational), civic groups, or favored causes based on long-standing interests, values, or personal experience. Their financial support can be provided directly or through a range of trusted individuals. Underwriters typically run lean operations prioritizing grantmaking and relationship-building and are driven by the values, interests, or personal experiences of the living founder or founder’s legacy. Effective underwriters periodically review how their long-term personal convictions and values can address the challenges of the day, such as centering historically marginalized and vulnerable communities through the elite institutions they support.

Sowers provide a large number of grants across a diverse range of individual actors and institutions, often exercising responsive, flexible, and participatory grantmaking. They bet on the cumulative effect of this approach to seed wide-ranging change. For sowers, flexible financial instruments, reputation, relationship-building, partnerships, and leadership are ranked among the top resources and capabilities. These are prioritized by structuring ongoing relationships, including input and feedback loops with grantees. Adept Sowers intentionally focus on revisiting strategy and developing robust evaluation approaches to ensure their strategy produces the envisioned result.

Of course, some funders may — and do — recognize themselves in more than one archetype, as many philanthropies employ different models to advance their initiatives. However, we have observed that funders using a blurred array of archetypes may also be diluting their impact: Different archetypes may need very different skills, capabilities, and activities. Trying to bridge these disparate requirements may put significant strain on staff, creating misalignments and tensions. It may also muddle strategic clarity and make impact evaluation difficult.

While the application of this instrument is in early phases and relevant insights continue to be collected, funders who have experimented with the operating archetypes, have experienced a number of “Aha!” moments. One of the most frequent learnings has to do with the realization that the archetype with which the funder has long identified is different from what it is in reality (based on its expertise, capabilities, operations and grantmaking approaches).

As organizations identify and analyze their desired current or future operating archetypes (or both), funders can leverage this framework for holding internal and external conversations about strategic goals and trajectories, organizational shifts, resourcing, talent, and equity. Below are a few questions that might serve as a helpful starting point for such discussions:

  • How does what we are currently aligned with what we aspire to be?
  • How can we assess and develop internal capacity throughout the organization?
  • Is there alignment between the skills and capabilities we currently possess and our desired state?
  • What resources, capabilities, or functions do we need to shore up to best fulfill our desired state?
  • How do we engage in deep listening with grantees, communities, and partners authentically, and how do we incorporate this input into our decision-making, evaluation practices, and investments?
  • How do we assess the balance of needs and opportunities to find where we can make the most impact?
  • How do we approach assessing impact, and does it fit with our operating archetype?

As philanthropies apply this these frameworks, we expect to learn more about how they apply to the many different kinds of philanthropic organizations around the world. Our hope is that those insights will contribute to creating more thoughtful, effective, and equitable philanthropy, advancing best practices and yielding more powerful impact for our sector as a whole.

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