Bureaucratic Time-Suckers in Philanthropy


time-1832710_1280As I’ve often said, there are some stories of waste and counterproductivity in the foundation world that I simply couldn’t make up if I tried. This is one of those stories. Read it and see how many incidents of pointless bureaucracy and time-sucking processes you can find, then see if my list (below) matches yours.

I recently was asked by a senior manager at a large foundation to submit a proposal. Time was of the essence, since the foundation’s annual budget year was about to end and this project needed to come in as part of the current budget. The senior manager’s assistant sent me a link to the foundation’s online portal to submit my proposal, which I did promptly. Then, after hearing nothing for a few days and knowing that the project is time sensitive, I sent an email to the assistant. The assistant replied that the proposal will be sent up the ladder for approval once the senior manager (not the assistant) fixes the formatting of the bullets in the document so that they comply with the foundation’s style. The senior manager, copied on our email exchange, responds to her assistant that she is in an all-day meeting and would the assistant please fix the bullets?

This story might be a comedic one if it weren’t so painfully real. Here is a list of obvious problems that should be fixed at this foundation, and my guess is that many of them are due to underlying causes or culture that should be addressed as well:

1. The year-end budget rush. Why? If you’ve got a great idea that deserves to get done, shouldn’t the need drive the timing and expenditure, rather than the other way around? I understand that many foundations employ a “use-it-or-lose-it” approach to budgeting, but that’s another newsletter article for another day.

2. An online portal that’s difficult and frustrating for both applicants and foundation staff. Online interfaces should make work easier, not more complicated.

3. Allowing something as mundane as bullet point formatting to delay a contract or grant approval process. I can understand a delay if key pieces of information were missing, but bullet point formatting? Seriously?

4. An assistant who either is not trained, not permitted, or not expected to take the initiative to make edits to something like bullet formatting – or even worse, an assistant who pushes simple administrative tasks up the ladder. In either case, this is a prime example of a someone in a leadership role who must take time away from learning, leading, and furthering mission to instead be distracted by administrative tasks that could easily be handled by administrative staff.

If any of this sounds like a situation that could arise in your foundation, please, please fix it! And if you have a similar story to share, please send it to me. If yours is the most outrageous one I receive, I’ll send you a free copy of my book, Confident Giving: Sage Advice for Funders – just in time for the holidays.


Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, is a global philanthropy advisor, author of the new book Confident Giving: Sage Advice for Funders, and was recently named one of America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers. Want more ideas, tips and tools to improve your giving? Read an article, listen to a podcast, or check out a case study.

Kris will be sharing the findings of her latest report, “The Road to Achieving Equity: Findings and Lessons from a Field Scan of Foundations That Are Embracing Equity,” at several upcoming events: a webinar for National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers on January 19, and a workshop for the Colorado Association of Foundations in Denver on January 26.

“We wanted to motivate other funders to support nonprofit talent and leadership by sharing the incredible work in process of our grantee partners. Putnam immediately understood the complexity of the work and distilled it into a variety of tools that the foundation is using now to promote the early successes and build momentum and support within the field.”

~Rafael Lopez, Associate Director, Annie E. Casey Foundation

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