ISSUE NUMBER 112 | June 13, 2016 

Are You a Cow or a Buffalo?

Last week, one of my colleagues and I were talking about our summer vacations. I'm off to upstate New York. She's headed out west to Yellowstone. We joked about the fact that I'd see farmland cows and she'd see free-ranging buffalo.
That joke put me in mind of a presentation I once heard about the difference in cows and buffalo when danger is eminent. Consider a herd in a field, with a big storm approaching. Cows signal the herd to run away, thus prolonging the impact of storm as it catches up to them. Buffalo signal the herd to move into the storm, thus guaranteeing the shortest period of exposure and the quickest return to blue skies.
This made me wonder about the ways funders respond to the threat of inevitable discomfort. Some seek to avoid the discomfort and some charge into it head on. Let me give you three examples:
Ending a relationship. Many grantmakers are reluctant to be direct with grantees or partners when a relationship isn't satisfactory. We want to spare feelings, avoid burning bridges, and not feel responsible for causing disillusionment in others. Those are caring sentiments, but are they really helpful? How much better would it be to have a direct, candid, and tactful conversation to explain what wasn't working? Approaching another person in this way shows that you respect them, even if you don't see eye to eye. It also can help them discover ways to improve their own operation, and it can shed light on things that you as a funder might have done better as well.
Embracing a difficult topic. Philanthropists in our country are actively investing in an enormous array or meaningful causes. But the vast majority of us don't choose to head directly into the most uncomfortable topics. Speaking up against things like violence against the LGBTQ community, racism, child sexual abuse, and domestic violence has long been seen as taboo in polite society. These things are horrible and uncomfortable, and it's much easier to focus on issues that are also important, but more socially acceptable to promote. But over the last few years, more and more funders are charging boldly into these arenas, taking on issues that have hidden in the shadows for centuries and bringing them into the light.
Admitting mistakes. It's always hard to say "we were wrong" - especially if there's a significant charitable investment that was part of that mistake. Foundations are notorious for sweeping mistakes under the rug rather than sharing them with others to help facilitate everyone's learning and understanding. But in truth, most foundations have nothing to lose by being upfront about their mistakes and the lessons learned from them. As one foundation CEO shared with me recently, it's not like people will stop asking for your philanthropic support.
Charging headlong into discomfort can be...well, discomforting. But so can knowing that discomfort is looming just over the horizon and will eventually catch up to you no matter how long or how far you run. So next time you're faced with inevitable discomfort, turn and move into it with courage and candor. Say what needs to be said, share what must be shared, and encourage the rest of the herd to join you.
In other words, embrace your inner buffalo. 

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Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a global philanthropy advisor and was recently named one of "America's Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers." For over 16 years, leading philanthropies have requested Kris's help to transform their giving and catapult their impact, including designing strategies that achieve results, streamline operations, assess impact, and allocate funds. Her clients include the Robert Wood Johnson, David and Lucile Packard, Annie E. Casey, and Charles and Helen Schwab foundations, among dozens of others.  Learn more at

Kris led our board through a very comprehensive and thorough strategic plan refresh process that allowed us to confidently develop the next steps for our organization. It was just the right approach to amplify our impact."  
-- Deborah Ellwood, CEO, CFLeads

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