The following is a conversation between Dana O’Donovan, Managing Director of Monitor Institute by Deloitte, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving. 

Denver: Monitor Institute is a multinational strategy consulting practice of Deloitte consulting. They work with social impact leaders to help surface and pioneer next practices, breakthrough approaches for societal challenges. And here to discuss what they do in more detail and the difference they’re making, it’s a pleasure to have with us, Dana O’Donovan, the managing director of Monitor Institute by Deloitte

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Dana! 

Dana O’Donovan, Managing Director of Monitor Institute by Deloitte

Dana: Thanks, Denver. It’s a pleasure to be here with you today. 

Denver: So, what makes Monitor Institute by Deloitte distinctive and so very special?

Dana: I think there are a few things, Denver. One is that the combination of Monitor Institute and “by Deloitte” is something that sets us apart from many other consulting organizations in this space.

And let me tell you what I mean by that. Essentially, we are able to combine the capabilities of a big firm, such as Deloitte, with all of our implementation, digital transformation. Essentially, the ability to take our client strategies and help them implement them in profound ways, combined with the social impact expertise of Monitor Institute. So, we have that big firm with a boutique feel that provides additional value to our clients. 

Denver: That’s a pretty heady combination. Well, let’s turn to a few of your areas of focus and the concept of adaptive strategy that’s been core to Monitor Institute’s work with nonprofits and foundations for a couple decades now. And you guys continue to adapt your adaptive strategy, which seems only apropos. Tell us how you go about this work, Dana.

Dana: Yes. Well, even years ago, as you mentioned, Denver, we saw that traditional static strategic planning processes, where you essentially try to predict the future, were no match for the dynamics of the world that we live in today, and this was true many years ago. The roots of strategy is military, which it’s important to realize, because that has a set of assumptions built into it that were helpful when information was scarce, when you could actually predict future movements based on past movements. But that certainly has not been the case for many years now. And if the last 18 months have taught us anything, it’s that we have no ability to really predict the future. 

And so, for us, the heart of how we think about making strategy adaptive for our clients is we want them to be coming out of work with Monitor Institute to think of strategy as a verb,…that in the strategy processes, we’re developing a roadmap, and we’re developing feedback loops so that we can continually test assumptions, pick up weak signals from the outside world, figure out how much we need to pay attention and innovate around those, and then try to adjust essentially the tiller as necessary to get to the outcomes that we want in the strategy without the fiction that we can actually predict. What are the 10 things that absolutely need to happen over the next 24 to 36 months? 

“That question of : How do we know what we know?  is actually more at the forefront than I’ve ever seen it in the past two years.”

Denver: That does sound pretty much like a fool’s errand as we have all witnessed here over the last two years. And I would guess those feedback loops are getting even tighter and tighter as things are changing so quickly. 

Dana: Absolutely. And I think one of the interesting trends that we’re seeing, particularly coming out of COVID with many of our clients, is that in the early days of COVID, it was all about pivoting program models and moving from high-touch, in-person solutions– particularly with some of our educational clients or tutoring or workforce development organizations– to: How do we do this in a more virtual, more technology-enabled way? In the pandemic, we actually saw these organizations saying, “Okay, well, how do we incorporate these innovations that we think may have worked into our core program models?” And now what we’re seeing in terms of the feedback loops is that we’re seeing organizations have a real emphasis on learning. 

And we’ve talked about learning for years, right? The talk about it is not new. For us, what we’re seeing is that we’re seeing organizations get more serious about that and say, “Look, as we develop this strategy, as we’re doing this experimentation and R&D, how do we build those feedback loops so on a consistent basis, we’re getting that data from the field; we’re bringing it back, incorporating it into our decision-making processes, disseminating it appropriately across the organization, and then continuing that innovation loop, right? That question of:  How do we know what we know? …is actually more at the forefront than I’ve ever seen it in the past two years.

Denver: That is so interesting. And I guess you could say that the only competitive advantage that you have right now is your speed of learning. That’s about it. 

Dana: I think so. And I think that that’s something that unfortunately we have not historically seen enough– investment in that R&D and learning and innovation function in the social sector. And so, that’s certainly something that we are hopeful and seeing some signs that organizations are able to think differently about that, and not just have organizations focus solely on their core program model, but that there is some more money for some experimentation and some piloting and testing.

Denver: Got it. Another area of focus is corporate social impact, and I know it’s always a delicate balance between the need for profit and the need for purpose. So how do you approach shaping that impact strategy for a company within their market… and also trying to meet their stakeholder needs?

Dana: Yes. Well, I think this is a place where we have seen dramatic evolution over the course of the past 18 months, Denver. And I think that is for the good, and certainly within Deloitte, we have seen a lot of evolution within our own practices, with the standup of our purpose office, and Deloitte making much more significant commitments to working in collaboration with other organizations and other corporations on more purpose-driven efforts. And we try to walk our talk in this way. 

And the way we think about corporate purpose and what this looks like is that this is far beyond what used to be called corporate social responsibility, which quite honestly was really about trying to defend against any bad outcomes, right? Let’s try to make sure we’re not doing anything egregiously wrong while optimizing shareholder returns, which at the time… perfectly reasonable. 

I think what we’re seeing now with corporations, which, again, I think has been driven by a number of factors, is that corporations that are on the forefront of this effort are incorporating their purpose efforts directly into their corporate strategy. And they’re doing it in ways that are aligned, not just to drive social impact, but also to drive their overall strategy as a business. So they’re looking both at social value and they’re looking at business value. And to our mind, for organizations that really incorporate this effectively into their strategies, those two don’t have to be in conflict. 

For example, it won’t surprise you that Deloitte focuses a lot of our social impact efforts on talent and talent development and the talent of the future. Those things are certainly driving social value, but they also have the potential to drive business value for Deloitte as we’re looking to grow and hire the professionals that are the next generation of our business.

“I think that one of the important innovations is that measurement techniques and data analytics have improved in ways that now enable organizations to actually measure the business value of social impact as well as the pure social value.” 

Denver: Well, when you talk about social value, the question that comes to mind is measurement. And we know how difficult that is– never as straightforward as we would like it. How do you guide your clients? Whether they be nonprofits or social clients or whether they be corporations, how do you guide them through that process of measurement? 

Dana: Yes. And I think particularly for corporations, this is one of the biggest issues, right? As soon as you start talking about corporate purpose and strategy, the very next set of questions is: How do we know what’s the bang we’re getting for our buck? And I think that one of the important innovations is that measurement techniques and data analytics have improved in ways that now enable organizations to actually measure the business value of social impact as well as the pure social value. 

And this can be done by looking at measurement across various elements of value creation for a corporation. So, we can look at brand differentiation, talent attraction, retention; how you think about innovation, efficiency. Capital access now is a bigger piece to market valuation. And then, of course, the traditional risk mitigation, right? So, we can actually have a richer set of metrics that capture both social value and business value to help corporations really hone their strategies. 

Denver: And then as part of that, you have developed a social impact scorecard, correct?

Dana: Yes, we have. Scorecards are always a good thing. 

Denver: Yes, they are. Little dashboard scorecards, they have certainly kept me on my toes over the years. There’s no question about it. Here’s a tough one, Dana, and that is systems change and especially for those wicked problems. And I know that you’ve utilized an approach called “aligned action.” Now, what exactly is that? Expand on that some, and how you go about achieving it?

Dana: Yes. I think systems change really comes out of the recognition over time that change in the social sector and in the structures in systems that we’re hoping to influence and change for the better can’t really be had at the organization-by-organization level. The problems are too vast. The systems are too complicated and far-reaching. And I think we used to say in the early days of this work, the systems are broken. 

I think what we’ve come to realize and what is important to note is that the systems aren’t broken. They are very effective at putting forward the outcomes they were designed to perform. They were just not the outcomes that are equitable and that makes the playing field level for everyone, particularly in the U.S. 

And so, our aligned action approach, Denver, is really around helping networks of organizations design coherent strategies for creating change in these bigger systems. And it’s not about everyone having to do the same thing, but it’s about getting clear about the shared goals that organizations across sectors may have, and then: What are the different roles that each organization can take on in service of driving that change. 

And so, for us, as we think about aligned action, it’s certainly not easy, right? It comes at the speed of trust. It is about leveraging the resources of others, which can be particularly challenging as we think about some of the typical norms in the sector of nonprofits needing to own their model, and funders needing to really be seen as the leaders in a particular issue area. But we really see it as a way for us to work much more intelligently at the scale of the problems we’re facing. And so, it’s no longer about scaling organizations or scaling reputation.

Denver: So, I guess a lot of that has to do with redefining success, which can be very hard for an organization because they’re pretty locked in that: we serve this many people, or we did this, and now it has to be what they’re doing against the big scale of the problem and the contribution they’ve made, along with others, in getting it under control or smaller. I always thought Community Solutions did a great job of that. They started counting down to zero because when they did their homeless effort, they put over a hundred thousand people in homes, but the homeless rate went up, and they recognized: It isn’t what we’re doing as an organization and achieving: Are we reducing the problem collectively with others? So, it’s just a completely different way of thinking. 

Dana: Well, it certainly is. And I think what’s important to note is that it doesn’t necessarily mean a wholesale change in each individual’s giving structures or program model, for example. In fact, one of the interesting things we’ve seen in the many aligned action efforts that we’ve been a part of, is quite often large organizations making tweaks in their existing models based on what they’ve learned through these network approaches– That’s where some of the power lies, right? 

So, we’ve seen organizations that—education organizations, for example, coming out of learning about a different population, having a different approach in how they set up their charter school, for example. Or we’ve had organizations that were fighting to get into public school systems to offer wraparound services in populations in those schools actually work together so that there’s only one point of contact with the school… so making it much easier for the school administration to offer a wider set of services. And so, I certainly think that all of those things are in service of taking some of the friction out of the system, really helping us get smarter in our existing operations while pursuing those larger goals.

Denver: That’s such a smart point because I think sometimes, we think about innovation as being some kind of wholesale change. And I read a metaphor the other day for that and somebody said that a plastic surgeon never makes a change more than two centimeters, but it can dramatically change someone’s appearance, and sometimes it’s probably not a good metaphor, but an interesting one in terms of, as you said, sometimes it’s just a little twist that can have an outsized impact. 

You guys issued a report recently titled, What’s Next for Philanthropy in the 2020s: A Look Ahead at Emerging Trends in Philanthropy and Charitable Giving. And I read an awful lot about this, and I know there have been a lot of experiments about it, but I can also say not a heck of a lot has changed in terms of the core practices and principles of giving. But your research, Dana, suggests that there are at least seven critical big shifts that are occurring right now and really do have the potential to create fundamental change in the philanthropic landscape. What would a couple of those be? 

Dana: Yes. I mean, and first of all, Denver, I think just to highlight your point, part of what we found in this research, in which we interviewed over 200 philanthropy executives, practitioners, donors, board members, and grantees about where the field might be headed over the next decade, and one of the things that we found is that with relatively little financial, regulatory or public pressure, what’s next for philanthropy often looks an awful lot, like what has been, and unfortunately. 

And so, again, while philanthropy has been often insulated from change, what we’ve seen over these past 18 months is that philanthropy is by no means immune. And so, these big shifts that we found in our research, they certainly have the potential to create fundamental change in our philanthropic landscape, and they’re likely to put pressure on funders to adapt. And they’re working together, not just as individual shifts, but they’re combining, accelerating, and reinforcing one another in increasingly complex ways. 

Denver:  A convergence, in other words.

Dana: It is. And I think that, just a few that I would highlight that we think are coming together, importantly, and none of these individually will be surprising, but the new momentum around racial justice. Again, not new, but we are seeing it increasingly prompting funders to grapple more with systemic racism and bias in their internal practices and their external actions.

I think the recognition of the state of climate and social emergency that we’re in, and the idea that this can easily trump whatever strategic agenda a foundation may have as we think about how plans and grants and processes may need to shift when there’s a hurricane or a flood, or any kind of other, either natural or social disaster.

And then lastly, that our social compact is really in flux, right? It’s not a surprise. We have plummeting trust in our institutions, and we’re really seeing a reshaping of the roles and expectations of the public, private, and social sectors right now. 

Denver: Now, well, change does usually accompany  urgency, and where there’s an awful lot of urgency, that really didn’t exist, I think, if I look back 10 years ago, but we certainly feel it now. You also discuss the power dynamics that underlie philanthropy… and it’s been going on since the beginning of philanthropy …and it’s between the grantors and the grantees, and the donors and the communities, and it just is part of what it is. I never heard anybody talk about power a decade ago, and now I hear it is right in the front of our consciousness. What are some of the things that are going on, or some of the ideas about adjusting those power dynamics? 

Dana: Yes. I think this is one of the trends that I am most excited about and hopeful that the momentum continues. I think that what we’ve seen is a growing awareness of the economic, racial, and social disparities that exist in our society, and quite frankly are actually almost funhouse mirrored as we think about how they underlie philanthropy, right? So, we’re working with the wealthiest individuals in society, and then the individuals who may be some of our neediest in society. 

What we have seen is organizations being much more intentional and much bolder in exploring new ways to disrupt and try to create new solutions for some of these issues. So, for example, organizations like New Profit that’s been a long-time partner of Deloitte, also The Whitman Institute, they’re exploring how they can drive impact by explicitly directing funds towards organizations led by and working with people of color because these leaders have systematically been underinvested in, given our philanthropic traditions and norms in the U.S. Organizations are also sharing power with and sometimes even ceding it to those who are much more proximate to community issues. 

So, we love the idea of a shift from community advisory boards to community accountability boards, and thinking about how you actually do more than just get inputs from these communities, but who you ask different questions to get to hopefully different solutions. 

Denver: It’s hard to do because I tell you, I talk to a lot of people who do share power, but they don’t. They think they’ve done it, and it’s really not doing it. So you really had some really good ideas there, even in terms of endowments and putting them to organizations led by people of color because of the wealth that they’ve built up, and that’s one thing that always is so difficult when you look at the size of the problem that a lot of these organizations have that are led by people of color. It’s hand to mouth. There’s no one endowment there. But the size of the problem is this, but the amount of money they have to address the problem is so much less.

Dana: Well, it’s true. And I think it’s particularly problematic because particularly for leaders of color who are very proximate or of the communities that they serve, we actually are systematically underinvesting in what could be some of our highest impact solutions that come from the communities. And I think that, again, that just goes back to the historical norms and traditions of philanthropy, that I think this is the moment for us to really think about how we change those and disrupt them going forward because we need all the best solutions we can get our hands on.

Denver: Absolutely. You also talk about catalyzing leverage, and you know that the nonprofit sector has got a lot, a lot of money, but it’s this much compared to the private sector and to the government. So how can this sector punch above its weight, if you will, by using things beyond money to have greater leverage?

Dana: Well, as we know and as you said, the philanthropies never had the resources to solve pressing social issues alone, but I think what we are seeing happen is grantmakers are getting much more sophisticated in how they influence and leverage the assets of others. So, not just working with other foundations and donors, but finding new ways of working with business. 

The Irvine Foundation is a good example of doing this. They’re now working with TV and film studios in Los Angeles, and trying to influence government funding flows as part of a coalition with them and other grantmakers in LA to really try to create a different pathway to film and TV jobs for folks who typically would have no way into those entry-level positions, right? 

So, I think this notion of grantmakers using their influence above and beyond their dollars and being more willing to partner with businesses, partner with government to get work done, that’s something that I hope we’ll continue to see more and more of in the future. 

Denver: So, would it be fair to say, Dana, that you really see the role of philanthropy changing here in this post…I don’t want to say post-COVID world because we’re not through it yet, but I mean in this changed world? 

Dana: Yes. That would be our hope. We certainly hope that grantmakers can begin to make the time and the space and the resources available for exploring what we call the new edges in their work in terms of balancing power and leveraging resources. And that philanthropy becomes less reactive to these external shifts that are happening all around. And in this way, Denver, even though no one truly knows what’s next for philanthropy, we hope that grantmakers can be more intentional about creating their own futures and driving even greater impact in the years ahead. 

Denver: How do you see the role of the board in this journey?  I’m sure you work with boards, and everything begins and ends at the door of the board.

Dana: We agree that boards are critically important to this change, and we are seeing that boards can play many different roles here. From really being momentum builders and having the backs of their organizational leadership and really helping to drive and accelerate change, to saying, “Okay, we’re not sure we get all of this stuff, but go ahead, and we’ll support you, and just really keep us closely posted” to some organizations that while not necessarily seeing themselves as being an impediment to change, because of some of the attitudes and the traditional approaches, are really making it harder for organizations to embrace these edges and take these innovative efforts into the core of their practice. And so, it really is an organization by organization basis, but I do think the more we can bring boards along and board members along about the need for change and the need for innovation, the better off it will be.

Denver: And probably part of that is to change the composition of some of those boards would be a good place to start.

Dana: Well, never a bad thing. Diversity of experience and increasing proximity of board members, and making sure that boards are made up of people from diverse backgrounds, not just the trope of the retired corporate leader, but the people that are on the ground, from communities doing the work– that absolutely makes a difference.

Denver: This is certainly not an easy time to be a leader, Dana. How do you think the nature of leadership is changing? And in what ways have you adapted? 

Dana: That is a great question. I think that it has been an incredibly challenging time to be a leader, and I think that there are a couple of things I’m very hopeful about that have come out of this change. 

So, one is that with everything that we have dealt with in the pandemic, it has been impossible for people to have that separation we used to have between our work lives and the rest of our lives. And that we have seen on Zoom calls, people bringing their whole selves to work in ways that would have been unfathomable just a couple of years ago, right? People’s children running through, dogs, you name it. Those are superficial examples of the fact that I think as leaders, we have had to take care of our entire team, not just the worker part of our team. 

I think for me as a leader, it has been a challenging time not just with the pandemic, but also our team has doubled in size during the pandemic. And so, I have a number of team members that have never met a single other Monitor Institute person in person before. 

Denver: Let me ask you something about that. How do you build trust when the only way I’d know you… the way I know you… I trust you actually, but how do you build trust when you’ve just been a square on a screen and nothing more than that, what do you do? 

Dana: Yes. I think there are a couple of things. I do think as leaders, we have to show up as whole people, and we have to be genuinely curious about getting to know the people in that square, right? Asking good questions, also sharing some of our own personal stories and the kinds of things that might come up over a dinner, making some space for that. The question of not just: How are you? But how are you really doing? What’s going on with you?… to better understand what the person’s context is. 

I also think we have been very intentional about trying to have all team virtual retreats, which are incredibly challenging to pull off… where we have our newer team members actually taking responsibility for building sessions that are meaningful for them. We try to have some fun together, which is what you get to do in person, and it’s not easy. And I hope that people are giving us some grace about doing things like that over Zoom, but we’re trying to create as much of the experience that is so meaningful when we all get together through Zoom as we possibly can by sharing meals together. 

We did a walk and talk during our last retreat where because we typically have that kind of community-building experiences when we get together in person, and then another thing I’ve been doing is writing emails to the team on a very regular, weekly or bi-weekly basis to talk about the topics at hand and to let people know that I’m seeing their efforts, and I see what they’re doing in the midst of all of this uncertainty, and to also set expectations –just this week with Omicron– setting expectations of the fact that here’s how we operate when we don’t know if childcare is going to be available, or if people are dealing with their own illness or the illness of family members; it’s discussable. We talk about it, and we can figure it out, but you’re not in this alone. 

Denver: Well, it sounds like you have been incredibly intentional, and it ain’t just going to happen; you really got to think about it and make it happen. That’s for sure.

Dana: It doesn’t happen by accident, that is for sure.

Denver: Let me close with this, Dana, and it’s about the work you do to help clients build a more equitable organization. And this is something that a lot of nonprofit organizations have a hard time getting started with, and then there are those who get started pretty easily, and they want to have a solution by the next week and want to get it all finished up. How do you help your clients think about this?  And what is some of the advice that you offer to them? 

Dana: Yes. Well, in addition to advancing our equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts on our own team, Denver, which we do by just trying to build our capacity as professionals and humans to recognize and address our own unconscious biases, developing approaches to increase inclusion and the diversity of our own team and leadership, we really work with clients to help them consider their set of equity, diversity, and inclusion issues and the choices that are relevant to them when they’re developing their strategies. 

So, in particular, we see three features of how we might center equity in strategy processes. So, one is, again, having a process for making strategy explicitly more equitable. And then also, so it’s about the process: How do we design the process to center equity more effectively?  And then how do we generate a strategy that makes the organization and its pursuit of impact more equitable? We help clients talk about their insides matching their outsides, so an equity-centered strategy guides operations in a way that’s consistent with the way they show up in the world with their program or funding efforts, and then realizing and acknowledging that this is a journey and a set of practices, and that it should be focused on getting better. 

And what that leads us to do is that we help clients ask questions around who’s involved in our strategy process, and in what ways, what choices are we actually putting on the table.  Are there approaches we need to fundamentally revisit? And then how are decisions made in our strategy process?  Again, where does the power lie? Who gets input? What are we being transparent about… our decision-making criteria? And so by going through this process, we can help our clients be intentional about how they center equity in their strategy processes for their particular organization. 

Denver: Oh, I love that answer because I’ve always been a believer that process often is more important than outcomes because if you get the process right, the outcomes will eventually get there. But too many people focus immediately on the outcomes when the process is the thing. Dana, for listeners who want to learn more about Monitor Institute by Deloitte, tell us about your website and maybe some of the information that they can find there.

Dana: Yes. Well, you can find us at You can also search for us on the Deloitte website, and there you’ll find a full listing of all of our services, all of our pieces, including the What’s Next for Philanthropy report that we talked about earlier. You’ll see blog posts from us so you can get all of our latest and greatest there. 

Denver: Well, I do that all the time, and I must say it is a very, very rich website. I want to thank you, Dana, so much for being here today. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program. 

Dana: Thanks so much, Denver. This was fun.

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