10 Ways To Overcome Delusional Altruism In Your Philanthropy



Spot and change behaviors that undermine your own altruistic goals.

Delusional altruism is rampant in the philanthropic sector. I coined the term “Delusional Altruism®” to describe situations in which a funder is genuinely trying to make a difference on the issues and communities it cares about—while paying absolutely no attention to how it may be getting in its own way, nor to the operational inefficiency and waste that drains both the donor and grantees of the human and financial capital necessary to accomplish their goals.

It can be difficult for funders to recognize when they’re engaging in delusional altruism. Because of this, I’ve created the online Delusional Altruism Diagnostic that allows funders to rate their performance based on 10 manifestations of delusional altruism.

1. Have your colleagues take the Delusional Altruism Diagnostic with you and discuss your answers. Different members of your team will have different answers to each question. Examine what might make the answers different and discover where you’re most in alignment. Then decide on a list of changes you can agree on together.

2. Be rapid and dramatic. Think in terms of speed and dramatic impact. What kind of changes can you make immediately? Give yourself an opportunity to make dramatic change quickly.

3. Survey or ask grantees for their thoughts. Ask your grantees for candid feedback. Once you’ve considered what they have to say, let them know how you plan to address problem areas they’ve identified.

4. Pick one area where you want to make dramatic improvements.Choose one issue from the diagnostic and commit to changing it. (Too many, and you’ll be overwhelmed.) As you make progress on that area, you’ll notice benefits in other areas of the Delusional Altruism Diagnostic as well.

5. Declare the next month “The Month of _______.” Fill in the blank with the one area you defined in step 4 above. Ask each member of your family or team to identify ways to make improvements. Once the month is over, summarize all you’ve accomplished—and celebrate!

6. Audit your practices. It’s not that difficult to change complex practices. The key is to be willing to look at your operation objectively and notice how what happens in one role may result in delusional altruism in another.

7. Ask your colleagues for advice. Other grantmakers have suffered from delusional altruism and have been able to turn their practices around. You can learn from their successes. You can also learn from approaches they tried that didn’t work so well.

8. Consider an objective opinion. Sometimes it’s helpful to hire an outside consultant to support tasks associated with your desire to improve. An objective mind may be able to ask questions that internal staff or board members don’t think of or are reluctant to ask.

9. Pilot, test, learn and keep going. Don’t hesitate to design new approaches, test them out and fail fast. Anything that doesn’t work will inform your next approach. Things that do work will optimize your effectiveness. It’s a win-win when it comes to combating delusional altruism.

10. Continue the conversation. Freeing your funding efforts from delusional altruism isn’t a one-time exercise. It requires ongoing vigilance and attention because it’s easy to fall back into old bad habits or allow new ones to grow while you’re busily attending to day-to-day work.

Of course, steps like these are easy to suggest but sometimes harder to address, especially if you are bogged down by bureaucracy or overloaded with demands. No one intends to create bureaucracy, cause delays or be disrespectful. In order to have great impact and transform our communities and neighborhoods, we need to look in the mirror and transform ourselves, too. To behave in any other way would be . . . delusional.

For more insight into delusional altruism, download the free white paper Delusional Altruism: Avoiding Self-Deception and Disrespect.

Additional Reading:

This article was originally written for and published by Forbes.

© 2018 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.

How Can I Help You?

I serve as a trusted advisor to foundation leaders and high-wealth donors across the globe. My clients report immediate and dramatic improvement in both personal performance and philanthropic impact.

If you or someone you know could use my help, please send them my way. Contact me directly at kris@putnam-consulting.com or call me at 800-598-2102 x1 and we can work together to make your giving matter.


Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, has helped to transform the impact of top global philanthropies for almost 20 years. A member of the Million Dollar Consultant Hall of Fame and named one of America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers. Author of the award-winning book Confident Giving: Sage Advice for Funders, which was named one of “The 10 Best Corporate Social Responsibility Books.” For more ways to improve your giving, visit Putnam Consulting Group.


“Kris brings a rare and unique perspective to her philanthropy consulting that makes it easy for us to bring our best selves to our work as grantmakers. It’s clear that she has invested in her own knowledge and capacity and has shared that with our field. In addition, she holds herself and her practice to the highest standards of integrity, honesty, clear thinking and creativity, and she helps our organization do the same.”

Ronn Richard, CEO, The Cleveland Foundation


Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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