Are You a Narcissist or a Philanthropist?

Three examples of the damage narcissism can cause to philanthropic efforts.

Narcissists are extremely self-centered people who have an exaggerated sense of their own importance, and are more concerned with their own desires and interests over the needs of others. Sound like any people you know? Perhaps the last person you dated or an elected official? How about a donor or foundation leader? Unfortunately, there are ample examples of narcissism disguised as philanthropy, and the damage these narcissists cause.

One of my mentors, Alan Weiss, recently wrote about narcissism and philanthropy in his blog:

“An act of generosity is most impressive, ironically, when it isn’t public, when no one’s name appears on a building, when you do something for someone in need and don’t post it on Facebook, when there’s no mention in a press release. Too many people seem to conflate generosity and publicity. If you’re going to loan me money because I’m in need and then boast about it, I don’t need your money, because you’re a narcissist, not a philanthropist.”

I agree with him. I do believe it’s important for donors, foundations and corporations to talk publicly about their charitable giving. But the purpose of this should be to shed light on an important issue, share what they’re learning about what works and what doesn’t, and encourage others to give. Not solely to satisfy one’s ego. 

His post got me thinking about narcissism in philanthropy. There are obvious examples splashed on the headlines, such as when billionaire Stephen Schwarzman donated $25 million to Abington School District but attached a long list of demands. His “gift” to renovate Abington Senior High School included the school being renamed after him, his name appearing on six building entrances, his portrait being prominently hung in the school, having approval over building design and contractors, and creating new curriculum.

But narcissism in philanthropy goes even deeper than scintillating headlines. It hides in unsuspecting places, such as among what should be a group of trusted colleagues working together to improve low-income housing. It crawls around undetected, out of the media spotlight, satisfying the ego needs of the philanthropists at the expense of community benefit.

Indeed, there are countless examples of narcissism in philanthropy. Let’s look at three:

  1. A corporate foundation leader who held back concerns about a community-change effort until the opportunity arose to share them publicly—when it is too late to make changes⁠⁠—unleashing vitriolic criticism, humiliating those involved, and catalyzing a cascade of other problems. In this case the narcissist had ample opportunity to share concerns privately, but ignored requests for discussion and feedback, failed to attend key meetings, and stayed silent during other feedback sessions. Having virtually sunk the project, the narcissist positioned himself as the key decision-maker, the person whose opinion counts the most and whose approval must now be sought. The narcissists’ ego and sense of self-importance must be satisfied, regardless of the negative impact on the project and – more importantly – the human beings the collaborative effort sought to help.

  2. The donor who, without warning, decided to cancel all strategic philanthropic initiatives currently underway, and return to being a responsive grantmaker. Effective immediately. Foundation staff were literally in the middle of country-wide, state-wide and national funding initiatives, each of which had been previously approved by the donor. Each initiative involved multiple partners who were counting on this foundation’s participation. They weren’t just counting on the funding, which was significant. They were also counting on the deep expertise and content knowledge of the foundation staff, and the value of this funder’s name-recognition and reputation. 

    Why did the donor do this? She decided she was tired of strategic philanthropy, where it might take years to realize systemic change. She liked transactional, responsive grantmaking better, where she could immediately see the impact of her dollars stuffing a backpack with school supplies or sending kids to camp. She was narcissistically overly concerned with her own desires and paid no attention to the damage she created by rapidly pulling out of long-term funding commitments.

  3. The successful business leader who decided, on his own and barely consulting anyone, to build a new medical clinic for Hispanic-American residents of his community. The clinic was built, opened, struggled, and closed in less than two years. Why? There was already a clinic with a solid reputation serving the same community. He didn’t consult the Hispanic community or learn about assets and needs. He just acted alone. His desire to be the “hero” outweighed his interest in truly helping people.

We’ve all encountered narcissists in our personal and professional lives. At best it’s simply boring to listen to them talk incessantly about themselves or boast about their lives on social media. 

But as each of these examples shows, narcissism in philanthropy causes significant damage. 

Narcissists drain the energy of people working tirelessly to create social change. They thwart talent when people are forced to deal with the drama and fallout caused by the narcissist, rather than the important work of helping others. They damage trust, when community members thought they were working with funders toward a common goal and feel the rug was pulled out from beneath them. 

Narcissists also hurt the very people philanthropy hopes to help. In the examples above, think of the damage caused to people because their health clinic closed, or needed services are delayed when previously committed funding must now be replaced. Narcissists cost money too. Just think of the salary costs of dozens of professionals whose work must stop, while their attention is turned for weeks or months to making sense of, responding to and managing the narcissist’s drama.

In my forthcoming book I describe how we all can inadvertently experience Delusional Altruism. We easily get in our own way on the road to impact. In my experience narcissists in philanthropy are the exception, not the rule (thank God or I’d find a new job!). The vast majority of funders I work with are genuine in their altruism and desire to change the world. They want to continuously grow, learn and improve. But we all need to be on the lookout for narcissistic philanthropists and the damage they can cause. They don’t deserve the power and glory they seek. And the people we want to help deserve trustworthy philanthropic partners who have their eyes on the prize of healthy, happy, and prosperous families and communities.

If you’re contending with a narcissist in your philanthropic efforts and are unsure how to respond, let me know and we can brainstorm some solutions. And be sure to buy an advance copy of my new book, Delusional Altruism: Why Philanthropists Fail to Achieve Change and What They Can Do To Transform Giving. In the book you can learn a few more examples of “bad philanthropy” and countless examples of positive, transformational giving. Plus if you buy an advance copy before March 22nd, and send me a copy of your receipt, you will receive free access to a live video webinar about delusional altruism I will be giving this spring (plus unlimited replay access)!

© 2020 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.

About Kris Putnam-Walkerly

I’m a global philanthropy expert, advisor and award-winning author. I help ultra-high net worth donors, celebrities, foundations and Fortune 500 companies dramatically increase the clarity, speed, impact and joy of their giving. I’m the author of Confident Giving: Sage Advice for Funders, was named one of “America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers”(along with U2’s Bono!), I write about philanthropy for Forbes.comAlliance MagazineDe Dikke Blauwe and am frequently quoted in leading publications such as BloombergNPRand WSJ

Whether you are just getting started in philanthropy, want to refresh your giving strategy, or need to catapult yourself to your desired future, I can help. Let’s talk! Call me at +1-800-598-2102 x1, email me at kris@putnam-consulting.com or schedule a call.

New Book Coming Soon!

I’m so excited to share with you that my next book, Delusional Altruism: Why Philanthropists Fail To Achieve Change and What They Can Do To Transform Giving will be published by on March 23rd, but is available for pre-order NOW! I can’t wait to share with you the many ways we are all “delusional” in our altruism and how we get in our own way without even realizing it. And you know me—the book also provides tons of tips and suggestions of what you can do differently to transform your giving!

“Kris shares the kind of advice that one wishes every consultant would give— insightful, useful and to the point, and always with good humor. She provides clear and inspiring thinking that comes from her experiences and a clear passion for our field.”

Peter Long, President & CEO, Blue Shield of California Foundation

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