Don’t Act Against Your Nature

Angry SkiesOne of my favorite quotes from the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden offers sage advice for philanthropy leaders:

“You should limit the number of times you act against your nature, like sleeping with people you hate. It’s interesting to test your capabilities for a while, but too much will cause damage.” (Jenny Holzer)

Think about this: What is one thing you are tolerating in your life or work that makes you miserable, angry, frustrated or sad? Now, think for a moment about all the damage that is causing you, along with your colleagues, organizations, and families.

Here are some examples of foundation leaders who failed to trust their instinct and went against their nature – and the problems it caused:

  • A senior leader of a private foundation made a grant to an organization even though instinctively she didn’t trust the leader. She did it because the organization was the right fit for an initiative she was involved in and felt pressured to make the grant quickly. Her instinct was proven correct when this leader poorly represented the foundation and himself in public meetings.
  • A family foundation CEO allowed his donor trustee to be inappropriately involved in micro-managing certain activities of the foundation, causing significant stress and frustration among the employees who have to spend countless hours placating the trustee and living with his mistakes.
  • A health foundation program director ignored her instinct about hiring a consultant. She liked the firm’s principals, but not the consultant they assigned to her project. Significant time and money was lost when the consultant failed to understand the foundation’s needs and couldn’t deliver.
  • A foundation CEO stated for months that a certain employee needed to be fired due to poor performance, but felt badly about firing him and kept putting it off. In the meantime, other employees were frustrated that the CEO tolerated this behavior, and it caused them to have doubts about the CEO’s leadership and judgment.

In each of these cases the foundation leader knew instinctively and immediately what to do. But they “acted against their nature” and failed to trust their instincts. The result was damage to personal and organizational reputations, misspent funds, loss of time, and frustrated staff. Just because you can tolerate bad behavior and poor performance, doesn’t mean you should.

So think back on the example you thought of earlier, the one thing you are tolerating work that makes you miserable, angry, frustrated or sad. You know what to do about it. Make a change, and do it.


Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a nationally recognized philanthropy advisor. Join her on Sunday April 26th in San Francisco at the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers’ annual meeting and reception, where she will facilitate a panel discussion about philanthropy consulting and the forthcoming issue of The Foundation Review.

© 2015 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.

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One thought on “Don’t Act Against Your Nature”

  1. One of my favorite sayings is from Davy Crockett: “Be sure you’re right; then go ahead.” It kind of captures both ends of the costly mistake spectrum. The first is acting before you have all the facts, haven’t heard from the people in the know and haven’t taken time to think through the options. “Ready, Fire, Aim” is a good way to spend a lot of money on lawyers or lose a lot on mistaken initiatives. The second, on the other end of the spectrum, is what can be even more costly, although the calculations are not always so quantifiable. That is what you were getting at in your post–knowing what needs to be done but not doing it. For example, keeping a toxic employee can have costs far in excess of what it would take to give the person a paid vacation. It’s not good for the organization or even for the person. The same goes for other actions to change organizational imperatives, restructure or leave behind a line of business or philanthropic focus area. Resources are wasted, morale suffers and the brand gets damaged. That brand may be a hugely significant asset for both for-profit and non-profit organizations, and its diminution may take many years and much investment to repair, if indeed it can be repaired. Thus, as Davy would say, once you’re sure you’re right, “then go ahead.”

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