6 Mistakes Philanthropists Make During a Crisis (and What to Do Instead)


Don’t let ‘delusional altruism’ stop you from being an effective giver.


Crises bring massive social, health and economic uncertainties, challenges and hardships. They also unleash unprecedented philanthropic leadership and opportunities for transformational social change. But being an effective philanthropist requires letting go of what I call “delusional altruism”—modes of thinking and behavior that get in the way of achieving goals. During times of uncertainty, these pitfalls can turn into defaults.

Here are six common mistakes wealthy donors often make during a crisis, be it a pandemic or another kind of disaster, and what you can do instead.

Mistake #1: Stepping Back

During a crisis, we may want to hunker down and hold back. As a donor, you have resources; any action—especially during a crisis—risks exposure to requests and scrutiny. But letting fear and isolation take over cuts you off from the knowledge, connections and relationships you need to be an effective leader and make a difference.

Instead, Engage

Reach out. Call the nonprofit leaders you support and find out their concerns and needs. Then, listen and act on what you learn. Collaborate with other donors, foundations and corporations in your community, such as one of the 500+ COVID-19 response funds in the United States. If not one of those, there are many others around the world.

Mistake #2: Deciding to Wait and See

If you wait to see how things shake out, you miss the opportunity to provide the most help. One family foundation’s decision to stay on the sidelines of COVID response until their September board retreat will cost them six months of payroll. They’re paying staff who are unable to execute a clear strategy because the foundation is sitting on its hands instead of helping people. That’s a luxury none of us can afford.

Instead, Clarify, Prioritize and Implement

The best way donors can navigate and lead through a crisis is to identify what you want to accomplish and the best way to accomplish it. While your mission should remain the same, your strategy can adjust year to year. If you lack a strategy, you can rapidly create one in as little as a day, and by working remotely. If you do have one, reexamine it now. We are living in a new world that’s going to bring tremendous adaptation and change. Once you have clarity on what you are trying to accomplish, determine your top priorities and focus your team on achieving them.

Mistake #3: Stop Building Your Philanthropic Muscle

To have the greatest impact, you need to be the greatest philanthropist you can be. This means building your philanthropic capacity and know-how. It means investing in yourself—your talent, learning, coaching, technology, infrastructure and relationships. But too often, philanthropists and foundation leaders withhold investing in themselves and instead allocate all of their resources to others. While the intent is noble, this scarcity mindset is part of the spell of delusional altruism. When funders start believing that they don’t deserve to strengthen their own talent, knowledge and capacity during a crisis, they diminish the impact they could achieve.

Instead, Invest in Making Yourself Stronger

Embrace an abundance mindset—the belief that investment in yourself is important and the more you put into your philanthropy, and yourself, the greater the return for the causes and communities you care about. This might include taking the time to learn about the impact of the crisis on the most vulnerable members of your community, retaining a trusted advisor to help you navigate your philanthropic giving during turbulent times or investing in technology, board training or strategy development. Put on your own oxygen mask first, and then assist others.

Mistake #4: Wanting to Maintain Control

During this crisis some donors may insist on lengthy grant applications, dictate how nonprofits use a grant or refuse to allow funds to be spent on overhead. These practices hinder grantees, even when there’s no crisis in sight; in the middle of a disaster, they can become downright untenable. What nonprofits really need now is support to address immediate challenges, not struggle with the donor-inflicted drama of inflexible funding.

Instead, Be Responsive and Flexible

Most nonprofits have minimal financial reserves to weather a crisis yet play an outsized role of providing society’s safety net. The most agile philanthropists trust nonprofit leaders to make good decisions—and are rapidly awarding additional grants with minimal or no applications needed, funding general operating support, removing restrictions on existing grants and extending or eliminating deadlines and reporting requirements.

Mistake #5: Diverting All of Your Resources to the Crisis

Sometimes funders get so caught up in responding to the needs of the moment, they overreact by dropping all other priorities. Before you switch your entire grant-making strategy to infectious disease prevention during a pandemic, take a deep breath.

Instead, Be Consistent

While it’s important to adapt to changing circumstances, overreacting makes us lose sight of all the level-headed thinking and decision-making that came before. Let’s say your philanthropy focuses on helping kids get into and graduate from college. Reprioritize or divert some funds to provide immediate relief to those you already serve who are impacted by the crisis, like college-bound youth whose parents lost their jobs during the pandemic.

Mistake #6: Only Respond to Immediate Needs

Short-sightedness peaks during times of stress and uncertainty, to the detriment of planning a long, sustained and effective response. At the same time, while many disasters don’t discriminate, recovery does. Those who were struggling prior to disasters like fires, wars, flooding or a pandemic, all have a much steeper and longer road to recovery. When funders just respond to immediate needs, those longer-term and very pressing needs go unmet.

Instead, Take the Long View

There are multiple phases in any disaster: response, recovery, reform and resilience. To support the critical long-haul work that will strengthen systems and communities, make sustained gifts towards rebuilding homes and schools, replacing worn infrastructure and changing inequitable policies. Comprehensive long-term planning can help your philanthropy have an impact that lasts for generations to come.

If you’d like to dig a little deeper, download the full article HERE. Also, many of the ideas mentioned here are in my recently-released book, Delusional Altruism. The book offers more in-depth information and examples of ways we hold ourselves back and how to achieve greater impact in philanthropy.

This article was originally written for and published by WORTH Magazine.

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

Ways I Can Help YOU Right Now


Free Consultation Call: For a limited time, I’m offering a FREE 45-minute Zoom consultation where we can discuss how to keep your team focused on top priorities, adapt to disruption and increase your agility, rapidly refresh your strategy to changing circumstances, increase your speed and get more time back in your day, invest in yourself to achieve the greatest impact, and/or prepare for the recovery phase. There’s no expectation or “pitch” at the end of the call—I simply want to help. I have limited slots, so if you are interested simply click here or reply to this email. I will get back to you within 24 hours (or sooner) so that we can schedule a call.

Sentient Strategy®: If this crisis had taught us anything, it’s the futility of spending one year to create a three-year strategic plan. Sentient Strategy is a revolutionary approach to formulate strategy quickly, to be used immediately for as long as conditions warrant, and then to make changes rapidly as conditions change. It builds a flexible, adaptive strategic approach that creates a roadmap for change and holds people accountable for quick implementation. You’ll achieve faster results, and have a flexible template for adjusting course regularly. Sentient Strategy can be developed in person or remotely within a week. Contact me at kris@putnam-consulting.com if you’d like to learn more!

90-Day Coaching: I’ll help you respond, stay focused, and lead through this crisis with a weekly call and unrestricted email access. This is not a regular offering of mine, it’s intended to help you not just navigate your philanthropy through the storm but to find sunny skies, and to be part of your support system. Together we can discuss any aspect of your work, such as managing your team and board remotely, identifying and implementing top priorities, developing new approaches and partnerships, maintaining focus, not feeling overwhelmed, and preparing for the recovery. I have limited slots, so if you are interested, write me at kris@putnam-consulting.com to learn more and sign up!

VIP Strategy & Coaching Day: For decades, I’ve worked hand-in-hand with global philanthropists, celebrity activists, and wealth advisors who utilize my philanthropic advisor services. Now, you can enjoy a one-on-one private VIP Strategy & Coaching Dayto help improve the impact of your giving. This custom-designed VIP Strategy and Coaching Day can be modified to fit your needs. We can schedule the training over a multi-day period, broken out into 2 to 3 hour sessions so that we don’t interfere with other events on your calendar. My virtual coaching day is run via Zoom, and there are breaks scheduled into the day. Email me at kris@putnam-consulting.com to learn more.

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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