Square Pegs: Intervention Strategies and Cultural Context

Much has been written here and elsewhere about scaling philanthropic models that work. In other words, find the process/method/approach/logic model that works and figure out how to apply that system more broadly, with, one presumes, similarly successful results. In essence, we, as donors, fund "business plans" that relate to impacts or outcomes we care about. I admit, this is an incredibly rational (to me), approach to focusing resources on what works.

There is another form of support, however, that focuses less on the how and almost exclusively on the what. You might call it operating support or outcomes-related funding, but the gist of it is that the funder cares more about achieving the result than mandating the method for getting there. In her article "Indigenous Peoples and Philanthropy: Colonialism by Another Means?" author Rebecca Adamson, President of First Peoples Worldwide, suggests that grantmaking that emphasizes a particular intervention strategy is inappropriate, and therefore less successful and even detrimental, when working in indigenous cultures. More broadly, she calls for a culturally appropriate, contextual approach to grantmaking.

In studying the article, it seems to me that Adamson is making the case for funding that attacks root causes of an issue, which by definition, means a cross-disciplinary approach. She uses the example of one of her projects to fund the reintroduction of the buffalo for a Native American tribe. Was it an environmental project? Yes. Was it a income project? Yes. Was it a health improvement project? Yes. You get the idea. This was a project that didn't fit neatly into an issue area (environment, health, etc) and therefore, didn't fit neatly into an intervention strategy, which are very often issue-area focused.

As we consider our own investments in what works, keeping an open mind about cross-disciplinary approaches, and being judicious in applying specific methods we've seen be successful (i.e. knowing their limits), seems to improve the probability that the best solution will emerge.

Nancy DeFauw

Posted at 8:00 AM, Mar 30, 2007 in Environment | Global Philanthropy | Peace and Justice | Permalink | Comments (1)


This is so dead on it is scary. It seems like such a no-brainer:

  • I want to give money to people that can achieve things;
  • people that are able to achieve things are people I respect;
  • I don’t micro-manage people I respect.

But we are stuck in a cycle of control, of father-knows-best “my way or the highway”…

To tell somebody how to do something is the ultimate way to dis-respect them: laying spores of a disease that will sap their initiative, having them worrying about the donor’s happiness instead of achieving results, turning them away from collaborators in order to protect their funding, breeding division, factionalism, and impotence.

So let’s not talk about the how, let’s talk about the what.

Doug Yeager

Posted by: Doug Yeager