Five ways to avoid delusional altruism

This post was originally published on Smart Business.  It is reposted here with permission.

Good businesses pride themselves on the good they do for others, both in terms of their products and services and in the way they give back to their communities. However, in my 16 years of experience advising corporate, institutional and individual philanthropists, I’ve found that many suffer from delusional altruism.

Delusional altruism is when you are genuinely trying to help people — but paying absolutely no attention to the operational inefficiency and waste that drains those you’re trying to help or your own company or corporate foundation of the human and financial capital necessary to accomplish these goals. Let me give you two common examples of delusional altruism in action:

  1. A foundation gives itself five weeks to approve a Request for Proposals (RFP) that it has already written, but gives grantseekers only three weeks to apply. Five different departments within a large national foundation each had a week to modify — or simply sign off on — an RFP.
    By contrast, each applicant had to decide whether to apply, decide whether to do so jointly with other invited applicants, develop the proposal concept (possibly in collaboration), write the proposal and get written commitments of matching funding – all within three weeks.
  1. A corporate foundation pays a program officer $60 per hour to perform tasks that an administrative assistant could handle for $20 per hour. Countless organizations pride themselves on their low overhead and administrative costs. They insist that one program assistant support two to four senior leaders who each are responsible for allocating millions of dollars in funding annually.
    What this really means is that program executives spend their time scheduling meetings, proofreading documents, collating binders, updating PPT decks, taking notes and filling out travel reimbursement forms. This is time not spent developing new relationships, identifying ways to leverage funding, sourcing new ideas, mitigating risk, thinking and planning.

If you suspect that delusional altruism is undermining your philanthropic effectiveness, here are five actions you can consider to course correct:

  1. Examine your grantmaking processes. Spend some time examining all the people, paper, committees, handoffs, sign-offs, write-ups, etc., that are involved. (I once had a client who discovered more than 200 steps in their internal grants approval process).
  2. Ask your staff for ideas. Allow these to be big ideas as well as small solutions, submitted anonymously if they prefer. Prioritize a few ideas, act on them, then discuss with staff what impact the changes had.
  3. Talk to grantees. Ask them to identify times when they felt that your company wasn’t being realistic, or when the process seemed unfair. Ask them to help you identify solutions and give them the opportunity to do so anonymously via surveys or interviews conducted by a third-party consultant.
  4. Do the math. Invest a little time quantifying the work your staff and managers do that could be off-loaded to a new support staffer. Then, quantify the value of the work your program staff could be doing once that administrative burden has shifted. Where is the greatest value?
  5. Increase autonomy, transparency and accountability for team members. Empower them to make more decisions without waiting for multiple levels of approval and consider creating a culture in which staff ask for support instead of permission when making decisions.

I guarantee that if you can suspend your belief in your own pure altruism and examine ways you might be deluding yourself, you will be delighted with the dramatic improvements your corporate philanthropy can make on the issues and communities you so clearly care about.

Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a global philanthropy adviser and author of the book, Confident Giving. She can be reached at kris@putnam-consulting.com

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