5 Manifestations Of Delusional Altruism



How funders undermine their own success.

Is your philanthropic practice suffering from delusional altruism? How will you know? Funders may think they’re doing things right when they are, in fact, employing policies or practices that unintentionally cause unpleasant consequences for themselves and those they serve—and sometimes even cause more harm than good. This is what I call delusional altruism.

Although delusional altruism is rarely intentional, it is pervasive, and its manifestations among funders can be difficult to recognize. Here are five common examples:

  1. Adopting a poverty mentality instead of an abundance mentality. The juxtaposition of poverty and abundance has nothing to do with money and everything to do with mindset and attitude. A poverty mentality is really a misguided belief that maintaining a Spartan operation delivers more value to the issues that we care about. An abundance mentality, on the other hand, is a belief that the more internal investment we make in capacity for our own or grantee operations, the more impact we’ll have.
  2. Expecting others to do what you won’t. Foundations are often guilty of looking to grantees to implement big ideas that they refuse to implement within their own walls. Examples such as collaboration, innovation and equity come readily to mind. We rarely think about the capacity required to become collaborative, innovative or equitable—and thus we become delusional about our potential impact. There is a huge difference between talking about an idea and actually engaging in the work of developing it.
  3. Making self-serving decisions. Throughout the philanthropic field, we’ve created a culture of making decisions that are deeply rooted in our internal perspective. As a result, we create policies and practices that benefit the funder but not the grantees and the communities that we’re serving.
  4. Forgetting to intentionally learn. By intentionally, I mean learning in a planned, deliberate and systematic way. Funders that embrace intentional learning anticipate when and where learning might occur, ensure that those involved have the time and tools needed to learn and share their learnings throughout their staffs and with others in their community. This type of learning is a regular, embedded practice in just about everything the funder does.
  5. Ignoring customer service. I believe the words customer service are rarely uttered by most philanthropists, their staff or trustees. Thinking about customer service isn’t part of the culture of most foundations, but I believe it has true, lasting implications. And I don’t mean treating grantees like paying customers in a business but rather as people without whom our work as funders would fall flat. Funders should never underestimate the value of a friendly voice at their end of the phone line, one that can provide clear, kind advice or gently explain why a proposal is not likely to be funded. When this is the case, grantseekers are less likely to be surprised or disappointed—even if the ultimate answer to a request is “no.”

These are just 5 examples of how delusional altruism can manifest itself in your funding efforts, and there are many more.

But don’t panic. Because delusional altruism can be difficult to spot, I’ve created the online Delusional Altruism Diagnostic that allows users to rate their funding performance on up to ten different manifestations of delusional altruism. Take the Delusional Altruism Diagnostic to evaluate your practice and start minimizing delusional altruism at your foundation.

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

Additional Reading: 

The Delusional Philanthropist 

Philanthropy — The Forgotten Investment Asset

Three Ways to Keep Delusional Altruism from Undermining Your Philanthropy

This article was originally written for and published by Forbes.com.

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


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.

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