Bureaucracy Whack-a-Mole


ferris-wheel-100234_1920Summertime always reminds me of beach movies set on the Jersey Shore. There’s always a boardwalk with an ice-cream stand, a Ferris wheel, and an arcade with lots of lights and sounds. And in that arcade, you can bet there’s an old-school game of “Whack-a-Mole.”

For the uninitiated, Whack-a-Mole is a game in which an automated “mole” pops its head up and quickly ducks back down into a series of holes. The mole appears randomly and suddenly, while the player attempts to bash it with a mallet. Points accrue when mallet meets mole. The higher the skill level, the faster the mole’s movements.

It occurs to me that the mole is a fitting metaphor for the bureaucracy that often invades foundation operations. It’s hiding there, just under the surface, then pops up when you least expect it – gradually increasing in frequency. Before you know it, bureaucracy becomes a dominant feature in the philanthropic landscape.

Here are three ways to whack bureaucracy before it spreads and entrenches itself:

  1. Conduct a Bureaucracy Breaker Audit – Gather a team and take a good, honest look at the practices and processes that you currently use. Where do they begin to lose their effectiveness because they are overcome by complexity or complications? How are the requirements or requests of one department hindering the What can you do to remove needless requirements, approvals, or other steps to streamline and get to effective outcomes more quickly and simply?
  2. Commit to the 50% Principle – First, identify a single form of bureaucracy that currently clogs up the works in your foundation – for example, maybe it takes eight months to make a grant, or you require at least three consultants to submit proposals before you hire the one you already know you should use, or your board docket is two inches thick and no one will ever read it all. Then, brainstorm three things you can do to reduce it by half. What would it take to get grants out the door in four months instead of eight? How about if only one highly qualified consultant has to submit a proposal before you can hire her? And what unnecessary information and duplication can you remove to get your 200 page board docket down to 100 pages (or better yet, 20 pages)?
  3. Think like a two-year-old – As everyone knows, a two-year-old’s go-to question is “why?”. Tap into your inner child and apply this question to everything you do during a day (or week, or grant cycle) at your foundation. Are you headed to make 14 copies of a grant proposal? Why? Are you about to send out an RFP for communications support when you already have a consultant you’re dying to work with? Why? Are you about to send your new grant guidelines to every internal department for review before you publish them? Why? In some cases, the answers to these questions may deliver a satisfactory explanation. But I encourage you to keep digging and keep asking why. You’re likely to uncover a false assumption upon which an entire bureaucracy has been constructed (such as the belief that seeking multiple bids or providing every shred of background documentation promotes transparency, when actually they don’t).

These three steps can help ferret out the moles of bureaucracy, but they are all contingent actions. You can only whack bureaucracy after it has spread and caused the internal delays, blockages and poor customer service that are its hallmarks. How can you take preventive action to you stop bureaucracy from sprouting in the first place?

Here are three solutions for keeping the bureaucracy mole from ever raising its head.

  • Start out of the box – One new CEO at a new health conversion foundation decided to immediately create innovative new practices that would streamline the operations from day one. She polled other funders to find out about non-bureaucratic policies and practices they used that might be relevant to her own operation, and then used that information to build her own bureaucracy-free system from the ground up.
  • Picture yourself as a supermodel – Ask yourself “if this organization were to become a national model in effective [fill in the blank] what would that look like?” You can bet it would not look like a bloated government agency. Apply those attributes that are national-model-worthy and leave the rest behind.
  • Create a no-silo policy – Bureaucracy loves a silo. Much like the mole holes, isolated areas of work allow for bureaucracy to grow easily, and in return that bureaucracy reinforces a siloed structure. On the flip side, siloes abhor open interaction and communication – so that should be a backbone of your no-bureaucracy operation. Open and frequent communication breaks down walls, streamlines processes and even sparks new and innovative ideas. Imagine what would happen if all the separate holes in Whack-a-Mole were to become one big, open space. That little mole would have nowhere to hide!

I’ve been known to whack a bureaucratic mole or two in my day, and I go after the task with gusto. But I’d prefer never to see another mole in my own operation, or in those of the foundations and philanthropists I serve. If you’d like to work together to take a whack at your own bureaucracy, please let me know!


Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, has helped to transform the impact of top global philanthropies for over 18 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 led our board through a very comprehensive and thorough strategic plan refresh process that allowed us to confidently develop the next steps for our organization. It was just the right approach to amplify our impact.”

~Deborah Ellwood, CEO, CFLeads



Whether you’re a first-time CEO, a new CEO at an established foundation, or a board member who’s made a new CEO hire, you’ve got high expectations. New leadership means a chance to strengthen practices and implement change. It’s an opportunity to build a solid foundation for generations of philanthropic impact.

Luckily, you don’t have to go it alone.

Kris Putnam-Walkerly will provide confidential strategic assessment, advising and coaching to help new CEOs navigate all aspects of starting a new foundation or leading an established one. Because no two foundations – and no two CEOs – are alike, Kris tailors her approach specifically to the needs of the individual and foundation in question. All activities are designed with the foundation’s ultimate purpose and goals at the forefront.

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June 28, 2017 – Community Foundations of Florida 2017 Annual Meeting, Florida Philanthropic Network, Naples

This provocative keynote will explore how community foundations can fall prey to “delusional altruism” – unintentionally getting in the way of their own impact and that of grantees – and how simple changes in common processes can instead create practices that are more productive and relevant for all.

Avoiding “Delusional Altruism”: How to Create a Legacy of Impact, Respect, and Value

July 18, 2017 – Forum of Regional Association of Grantmakers Annual Conference (San Francisco, CA)

Before we begin to support our members work in racial equity, diversity and inclusion, we must first do the work in our own organizations and with ourselves. Join this workshop to explore the ways and tools used by members of the Forum to do the work at home before they are in community working. Kris Putnam-Walkerly will share findings of her recent her recent field scan, “The Road to Achieving Equity,” conducted on behalf of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Inside Out: Doing Race, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Work Internally

September 7, 2017 – Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers

In this session, you’ll hear what foundations are doing broadly to incorporate equity internally, as well as ways ABAG funders are making equity a part of their day-to-day operations. Kris will present findings from her recent field scan, “The Road to Achieving Equity,” conducted on behalf of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and share how institutions are making operational changes in order to incorporate equity in ways that encourage staff, better support grantees and partners, and achieve their missions

“Racial Equity & Philanthropy: Achieving Equity…How Exactly?”

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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