Amid Today’s Deep Social Anxiety, Philanthropists Must Recognize Their Blind Spots

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In philanthropy circles, people very rarely, if ever, call each other out for being delusional. And that’s exactly why I wrote my book Delusional Altruism: Why Philanthropists Fail To Achieve Change and What They Can Do To Transform Giving

Briefly, the book is about human behaviors we’re not even aware of that get in the way of transformational change. It’s also about how to replace those behaviors with ways of working that are much more effective.

Moreover, in a time of deep social anxiety—as we grapple with a lethal pandemic, historic joblessness, police brutality, and systemic racism thrown into even starker view due to COVID-19—we need to be honest with ourselves about precisely where and how we are falling short. We don’t have the time or luxury to live in our own alternate reality. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, this is “the fierce urgency of now.”

While the vast majority of philanthropists are eager to do the right thing, here’s the dilemma: How can you change actions or behaviors that you’re not even aware of?

In advising philanthropists for more than two decades, I’ve come to learn the blind spots that too often decrease the clarity, speed, impact, and joy of their giving. Sound familiar? Here are three of the most common blind spots and, especially amid these extraordinary times, what to do instead.

A scarcity mentality

If you do everything on the cheap—without investing in the infrastructure or long-term success of your philanthropy—you’re creating limitations, not opportunities. Your heart might be in the right place—believing that, by being frugal, more money can then go to your cause—but you’re actually doing more harm than good. Why? Because having such a scarcity mentality often gets extended to grantees, too, typically by your offering little to no funding for the very things that can help them grow and succeed, such as operating expenses, leadership development, and technology.

So what should you do instead? Act with a mindset of abundance.

Now, to be clear, I’m not talking about throwing money around. I’m talking about becoming stronger by being intentionally generous with your leadership, reputation, experience, and connections. Additionally, taking risks, thinking big, and investing in both your and your grantees’ capacity and talent are great ways to act with an abundance mentality.

Busyness

In philanthropy, as in life, just trying to figure out which way to go can be a significant challenge. As a result, many philanthropies are extraordinarily busy with little to show for it. Absent a clear “X-marks-the-spot” strategy, they churn in relative solitude, creating a mountain of effort—and a molehill of impact. And while some are confronting this conundrum with a strategy focused on long-term systemic change, progress remains relatively elusive.

So what should you do instead? Rather than spending an outsized amount of time wringing your hands on a long-term plan, use strategy as a simple yet powerful short-term tool.

This way, you will not only more swiftly galvanize your stakeholders toward a common goal; you’ll also be far more nimble in the face of a crisis or rapidly changing circumstances. In other words, you won’t find yourself stuck in the mud with a long-term plan that, essentially overnight, has become obsolete.

Yes, you need a reason for being, a set of guiding beliefs, and a vision for the future. But it’s short-term, sentient strategies and “sprints” that really power your journey and allow you to celebrate the successes along the way. What’s more, they create the space to rethink priorities, hold individuals accountable, and seize teachable moments.

Power grabs

You may hold the money and resources that others need—and be the grantor to the grantee. But when you wield too much power, you fundamentally limit honesty, trusting relationships, and so much more. Power grabs create isolating and highly stressful environments. And worse, they set philanthropies up to fail because they lack the feedback loops that are essential to understanding how efforts may be falling short. For instance, if you’re seeking to reduce racial inequities, a power grab only perpetuates the status quo, as you’re operating from within a privileged and uninformed bubble.

So what should you do instead? Cede control and build trust with everyone—your team, your community, your grantees, and anyone else who is a potential partner or collaborator in your work.

A smart place to start in building trust is to always be your most authentic self. Know who you are and what you’re good at. Keep your word. Be willing to say, “I don’t know.” And when you make a mistake, admit it. In being vulnerable, you’ll cause others to lean in with appreciation and understanding. You’ll also build healthier relationships and increase what you can accomplish as a collective.

Remember, however, that building trust takes time and commitment. Be patient, work to find shared values and goals, and never fail to listen more than you talk.

Mahatma Gandhi said: “If you want to change the world, start with yourself.” By recognizing your blind spots and knowing what to do instead, you’ll become a more powerful philanthropist and an even stronger force for good. And now more than ever, that is exactly what the world needs.

This article was originally written for and published by Kivo Daily.

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

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Lara A. Kalafatis, Chair, Cleveland Clinic Philanthropy Institute 

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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.

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About Kris Putnam-Walkerly

I’m a global philanthropy expert, advisor and award-winning author. I’ve helped hundreds of ultra-high net worth donors, celebrities, foundations, Fortune 500 companies and wealth advisors strategically influence and allocate over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts. I was named one of “America’s Top 20 Philanthropy Speakers” three years in a row, I write about philanthropy for Forbes.com, CEO World, Alliance Magazine, De Dikke Blauwe and am frequently quoted in leading publications such as Bloomberg, NPR and WSJ.

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