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Does your philanthropy have the clarity to be the change we need?
July 15, 2020

PutnamWalkerlyKris-GP-July2020
Kris Putnam-Walkerly

Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a global philanthropy expert, advisor, and award-winning author of Delusional Altruism: Why Philanthropists Fail To Achieve Change And What They Can Do To Transform Giving.

During COVID-19, we’ve seen how systemic racism and injustice magnifies personal hardship and undermines recovery. We’re also witnessing what happens when too many nonprofit organizations balance on a financial knife’s edge. So, just when we need robust social safety nets, civil society is at its weakest. Hard on the heels of that massive need, we’re experiencing an even more deafening call to action to condemn business as usual and dismantle racism in this country.

It’s a lot. And it amplifies a question that philanthropists have been grappling with for decades. How do you sensitively and effectively use your power, privilege, and means most effectively—especially in the face of so much need? The answer to that question is complex and multi-faceted. But one thing is for sure: as a funder, you won’t achieve the dramatic changes you seek if you continue clinging to beliefs and practices that are misguided and “delusional.” That’s why I wrote a book about it. It’s called Delusional Altruism.

PutnamWalkerlyKris-DelusionalAltruismbook-July2020Now, by “delusional” I don’t mean we’re stupid or crazy! I mean we’re hindering our impact unnecessarily, because of a handful of deceptive and illogical thoughts we choose to hold onto. These illogical thoughts make us get in our own way and often we even don’t realize it. For some, it’s a scarcity mindset. For others it's fear. Many of us have too many steps that slow us down. Or we ask the wrong questions, which send us down the wrong paths.

“We’re hindering our impact unnecessarily, because of a handful of deceptive and illogical thoughts we choose to hold onto.”

The path to truly transformational change can be found by clarifying your purpose and transforming the way you work. If you aren’t doing this already, here are three ways to get started:

  1. Think like a mechanic. This means you need to regularly lift up the hood of your philanthropy to notice what’s slowing you down. Look for the friction and leaks. Ask yourself, “What’s wasteful, duplicative, or redundant? What are self-created barriers that keep us and our partners from moving forward?” What’s costing time and money and slowing everyone down?

Maybe you’re attempting to increase fairness and transparency in your work, but you have too many steps, like requiring potential grantees to fill out lengthy application forms, submit three years of audited financial statements, obtain letters of recommendation from community leaders, explain how the project will be evaluated, and host a half-day site visit to showcase the organization.  By eliminating self-imposed rules and unnecessary gates and gatekeepers that strain already taxed systems and relationships, everything will run more smoothly.

  1. Ask the right questions. Ever feel like any potential pathway could be the right one? You’ve got all these talented people on your team proposing new frameworks and solutions. As you move forward with yet another new initiative, you feel like a squirrel, chasing the next shiny new object. The antidote to this tail-chasing behavior is to clarify your destination. Sometimes the same question can be the right one in certain circumstances and the wrong one in others. For example, “How should we improve remote education in our school district?” is a really important question. But first, you need to know, “What’s our goal for remote education?” or “Why is remote learning failing some students and not others?”

You can also step back and do this organizationally by asking questions like, “What is the change we want to see in our community in the next 12 months?” Or, “Who do we want to be in a year?” To answer these shorter-term strategic questions effectively, you need to have a clear sightline to your particular philanthropy’s North Star. This means having the answer to questions like, “Why do we exist?” “What do we value?” and “What long-term vision or future state are we trying to achieve?”

  1. Build trusting relationships. With little accountability in philanthropy aside from what you create yourself, think about how you can be more accountable to your grantees, those working on the frontlines for change. Start by really listening. Call your grantees and ask them two questions: How are you doing? What can I do to help? Be aware of power dynamics and what grantees may not be saying. You want them to come to you with challenges so you can help in meaningful ways. But they want to maintain your support. There is a lot of power merely being the person with access to wealth. The giver gives, and the recipient receives. Be patient and take the time required to break down barriers and truly get to the heart of things.

“By changing how you work, you can elevate voices, improve experiences, and improve outcomes for all stakeholders, including you.”

To take it a step further, look at your own systems, policies, procedures, and practices that diminish trust and increase power dynamics. By changing how you work, you can elevate voices, improve experiences, and improve outcomes for all stakeholders, including you. This might include ceding power and decision-making to the people most impacted by the issues you fund. Nobody expects you to have all the answers. By operating with a “we’re all in this together” mentality, you get a whole ecosystem of people working collaboratively toward solutions. In addition to alleviating tension and pressure, it’s an approach that yields amazing results.

COVID-19 and the outpouring of response to police violence, ongoing racism, and divisive leadership have all combined to daylight just how tied together we all are, and just how urgently change is needed. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, it’s an opportunity for philanthropists to up your game. By intentionally thinking like a mechanic, asking the right questions, and building trusting relationships, you’ll be doing the important internal work required for collective transformation.

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About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

    The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation Center.

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, Transparency Initiatives
    Foundation Center

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