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The Double-Edged Sword of Subject Matter Experts

2014-November 19
by Don Matteson, Chief Program Officer

I've been reading with great interest fairly recent articles and responses about the state of"strategic philanthropy" and its reliance on (presumably) linear causal chains and often mechanistic characterizations of social processes. The discussion has brought to the fore an issue I've grappled with for nearly the entire time I've been involved in grantmaking (coming up on nine years): the role of experts on foundation staff.

There's no denying that expertise in a field has real benefits for strategic philanthropy. Experts are generally up to speed on the major issues, know who the key players are, and can quickly identify gaps in the field. With that said, I'm often saddled with doubt that experts continue to approach their fields with open minds. Too often it feels to me like experts I've spoken with have dogmatic ideas about The Way to "fix" substance abuse/mental health/intellectual disabilities/learning disabilities, and that there's a tendency to fall into the "every problem looks like a nail" mindset when wielding their favorite (linear, mechanistic) hammer.

When hiring program officers at the Tower Foundation, we've gravitated towards people with solid not-for-profit backgrounds, but not necessarily field-specific expertise. We like people who can do sound program planning and budgeting, who are good at researching issues, and who enjoy looking at a range of solutions from a variety of angles.

There's certainly ample room to consult experts, but I'm still not entirely sold on having them take point on a grantmaking portfolio -- at least not without some mechanism to counterbalance one person's (unarguably well-informed) opinion.

What are your thoughts? How do you use experts to inform your grantmaking and field-specific thinking? 

Photo by Søren Niedziella
Flickr: The Sovereign Limited Edition Medieval Sword / 7313022700
Creative Commons 2.0 Licensed

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