About a year ago, I wrote a newsletter article about grantmaking with an abundance mentality rather than a poverty mentality. That sparked a good bit of interest, some speaking requests, and an article in the December 2015 edition of GMNsight (a publication of the Grants Managers Network) about how an abundance mentality can help foundations streamline almost every process to boost efficiency, productivity and morale.
In the GMNsight article (also available for download on my website), there are several examples of what a poverty mentality looks like and how it hinders effectiveness:
- Understaffing that subjugates networking and knowledge building with administrative tasks
- Lack of investments in technology or policies that prohibit its most productive uses (such as working remotely)
- Over-done board meeting preparation that overwhelms all staff
- Vendor bid processes that waste time and don’t save money
In most cases, foundations that succumb to a poverty mentality truly believe they are doing it for the right reasons – a perception that may be driven by what they see in practice around them or by what they interpret as thrift. But in all cases, adopting a poverty mentality prevents foundations from doing their best work and becoming more effective.
Foundations that see beyond the poverty mentality and recognize the value of their own abundance allow themselves to do things that significantly increase their effectiveness, such as:
- Learning about key issues from top experts rather than assuming staff can learn everything on their own
- Employing the best people possible and making the most strategic use of their time
- Thinking in terms of creating national models rather than just getting by
- Investing in the resources or technology that will help staff and grantees become more effective
Few organizations are as well suited to invest in their own effectiveness as foundations. Unlike other fields, we have very minimal obligations to justify the actions we take or how we choose to invest. I understand that in the face of all this freedom, a reserved stance may feel prudent in an effort to uphold an obligation of stewardship and avoid criticism. But many foundations are too reserved. I’m not talking about creating cushy offices or pampering staff, but thinking of our people as assets that will provide exponential return on investment if we invest in the technology, processes, knowledge building, support – and yes, other people - who will allow our effectiveness to flourish.
Much of the shift from a poverty mentality to an abundance mentality is a shift in mindset. As funders, we feel guilty for “spending money on ourselves.” But on the other hand, if we aren’t willing to invest in our own vision, our own capacity and our own effectiveness, we are undercutting all of the other investments we make in the communities we serve. We should spend wisely on the investments that we know will deliver the best outcomes, both externally and internally.
When an abundance mentality is present, great things can happen. In the GMNsight article, there are several stories of foundations that invested from the perspective of abundance to do things like convene a large and diverse group of stakeholders, examine and streamline all internal processes, respond successfully to the largest single RFP response in foundation history, and investing in sharing their knowledge with others to avoid repeating mistakes down the road.
I firmly believe that adopting an abundance mentality is imperative for philanthropy. Why? Because our world is changing with increasing speed and complexity, and that demands a faster, more efficient pace from all of us. The scale of change is growing from organizations and small communities to policies and systems. The Depression-era notions of stewardship that many of us still hold dear will render philanthropy as ineffective as as prohibition for addressing social challenges. We owe it to our work, our missions, and our communities to up our game.
If we, as philanthropists, won’t invest in our own work from a mindset of abundance, then who will? As I mentioned in the GMNsight article:
There is the corporate adage, “You have to spend money to make money.” Philanthropy could adopt its own version: you have to invest in effectiveness in order to make change. The question is, are foundations willing to embrace a mindset of abundance to make that happen?
Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, is a philanthropy expert and author of the forthcoming book, Confident Giving. Learn more about her coaching and advising services to philanthropy leaders.
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