Lasting Change Starts with a Landscape Analysis

Every few months, I get a call from a philanthropist that goes something like this. 

“Hey Mike, we know you specialize in policy and advocacy strategy. Could you write a strategic plan for our foundation?” 

My response is always the same: 

Before we can work together on strategy, we need to understand your landscape in a deeper way. 

Fueled by urgency, philanthropists and change agents sometimes jump to solutions before fully understanding the problems they are working to solve, and the context and communities most impacted by those problems. 

That approach sacrifices sustainability in the name of expediency, and can result in advocacy that is at best a flash-in-the-pan, and at worst, unintentionally harmful to the issues and communities philanthropists aim to serve. 

Whether seeking to achieve a specific policy change or evaluating how to maximize their philanthropic impact, an understanding of the landscape will help forward-thinking funders move forward in a way that allows for real systems change.

A good landscape analysis offers perspective in three key areas. 


Better understand how power and influence work.

A landscape analysis helps you understand how power and influence work in the communities in which you are driving change. Funders taking an ecosystem approach must be grounded in those unique dynamics that shape power and influence in any given community. 

Sometimes those dynamics have a name; in all communities they matter. For example, understanding how a region’s cities and suburbs relate, the relationship between state and local governments, the role of race, and the norms and social mores that characterize philanthropy and politics all matter when trying to move the needle on any given issue. 


Better understand complex problems.

Taking the time to root your work in the local landscape helps you understand complex problems and avoid oversimplification. In philanthropy, there is a tendency to grasp at simple solutions because they feel good. “If we can get books into this school library everything will be OK.” Or “if I just give a MacBook to every kid they’ll have access to online learning.” 

But when we work with funders, we encourage them to embrace complexity. Real solutions to social problems are usually anything but simple, and it takes time and effort to understand those problems at the root level and to in turn, create effective strategies to address them. 


Gain a fresh, unbiased perspective.

Getting an objective, third-party view of your landscape helps uncover difficult truths about your work that you might never find on your own. When we perform a landscape analysis, we dig deep to find truth—no matter how ugly, no matter how deeply buried—and then use that to shape a more effective strategy.

By bringing fresh eyes to the work, we don’t carry the baggage that comes with years of “always doing it this way.” In doing this work for clients, many of whom have spent decades working on their issue and in their community, I have yet to do a landscape analysis that doesn’t uncover some new insight or different perspective on old problems. 

There is no single playbook for change. There is no simple template from which to build a strategy that will work in every city or on every issue. 

Rather, you have to understand a region’s unique dynamics and nuance in order to catalyze change effectively. That kind of deep-dive need only take a few months. But, it’s time well worth spending for the forward-thinking philanthropist committed to real impact.