Three Ways Funders Delude Themselves About Equity

This article was originally written for and published by Philanthropy New York. The original post can be read here.

Funders, for the most part, want to do the right thing and operate with the best of intentions. But within those good intentions, funders too often suffer from what I call “delusional altruismSM.” Delusional altruism is when funders inadvertently get in their own way, or make life more challenging for their grantees and partners – and in doing so, prevent themselves from making the greatest impact. In the worst cases, they can do even more damage than good.

Delusional altruism usually manifests itself in seemingly benign ways, such as making a grant application and approval process too cumbersome, taking three weeks to respond to grantee emails, or jumping on the latest trend (like crowdfunding) without thinking through its relevance and usefulness. Fortunately, these situations are relatively easy to correct, with little investment on the part of funders.

When it comes to equity, delusional altruism is more complex.

“Equity” is a growing buzzword in the field, with more and more funders asking questions and wanting to learn how to embrace and promote it. That’s a good thing. Inequity is a big problem in our society and at the heart of many social ills that philanthropy seeks to address. But equity is also an area where funders are quick to delude themselves. A few months ago, my firm conducted a field scan  on behalf of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to learn how funders are working to embrace equity. In conducting that scan, and in subsequent conversations about the findings, I’ve found that funders engage in delusional altruism with regard to equity by:

1. Not clearly defining what equity means. Many foundations claim that equity is a core part of their values and operations, but have never clearly defined what, exactly, they mean by “equity.” As a result, they are hard-pressed to explain how they are incorporating equity into their work. “Equity” is one of those terms like “capacity” or “collaboration.” It lends itself to nuanced interpretations. In general, it carries with it the notion of fairness. It’s different than equality, in which everyone receives the same amount of something. In an equitable situation, everyone receives what they need – which implies that those who have greater needs receive more of whatever is needed (food, support, access, opportunity, etc.). Funders can and should go deeper in defining what “equity” means to them in order to clarify their expectations and goals around equity. For example, one funder might zero in on racial equity in education while another looks for equity in terms of health outcomes for a particular geography. It seems elementary, but investing time and resources to gain clarity around equity is critical. If you don’t know what you mean by equity, how will you know you’re achieving it?

2. Assuming aggregate data indicates an equitable outcome. I’ve heard several funders state that by serving an entire population, they’re naturally behaving in an equitable way. However, a closer look at data often will prove that this is not the case. For example, assume a foundation invests in a reading campaign to ensure all students meet a third-grade reading standard. The aggregate data shows a 10 percent increase in third-grade reading scores district wide, and the funder celebrates. But disaggregate the data by income, race or geography and you will likely get a very different story. For example, while 75 percent of wealthier schools may have increased scores by 20 percent, the poorest 25 percent of schools may have seen their scores drop by 40 percent. Without disaggregated data, the funder is deluding themselves about their success, and the students who need the most help are hidden from view.

3. Expecting grantees to address equity without doing so themselves. In my presentations and discussions with funders about equity, many are quick to look externally for areas in which to make change. They vow to make grantees report on their board and staff diversity, and provide disaggregated data about the populations they are serving and the outcomes they’re seeing. They encourage grantees to go through equity trainings and adopt equity policy statements. These funders completely miss the fact that they should also turn that same equity lens on themselves. To be fair, some foundations have simply evolved with equity as part of their DNA. They have always used an equity lens to hire staff and vendors, examine grantmaking strategies, and make mission-related investments. But in my experience many grantmakers delude themselves by believing that equity is something that can be prescribed rather than modeled. An authentic understanding of equity can only come from doing challenging work from within.

These are just three examples; our equity field scan contains others.

No funder sets out to delude themselves, but it’s remarkably easy to do. Overcoming delusional altruism – particularly in terms of equity – requires that a funder look at itself honestly and objectively and ask some difficult questions about how its actions support or undermine its intent. It’s hard work, and never ending. But it’s also one of the best ways to ensure that philanthropy is effective, relevant and valued.

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Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, has helped to transform the impact of top global philanthropies for over 18 years. She was recently inducted into the Million Dollar Consultant Hall of Fame, one of only six consultants chosen in 2017. In 2016 she was named one of  America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers, and authored the book Confident Giving: Sage Advice for Funders, which was named one of “The 10 Best Corporate Social Responsibility Books.”  For more ideas, tips and tools to improve your giving, visit Putnam Consulting Group to read an article, listen to a podcast, or check out a case study.

Challenge of the Week: Do you need to overcome delusional altruism? Email me at kris@putnam-consulting.com and I’ll offer a few ideas!

“Improving lives through philanthropy is a complex business, but the Putnam team provided us with a clear, compelling story of our work with local partners and the real-world impact that’s had the communities we serve. These are stories we’ll use and share with peers and grantee partners for years to come.”

~Paul DiLorenzo, Senior Director, Casey Family Programs

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