4 Ways Fear Can Paralyze Philanthropy


Banish these common fears that undermine your impact


As a warning mechanism, we’d all agree that fear can come in handy. But what happens when it becomes debilitating, or even delusional? Today, more than ever, philanthropists need to find ways to recognize the difference and effectively move forward.

Philanthropy has enough challenges right now without wasting money, time or talent because of fear. Fear can paralyze us and prevent us from learning and improving. It can diminish impact. And it can distract us from the many pathways available for making change. 

Here are four common fear pitfalls to recognize and avoid:

Fear of ambiguity. 

We often find ourselves plunged into the unknown. This ambiguity causes many funders to be fearful. As a result, they stop. They hunker down. They wait. 

For example, a new president is unexpectedly elected, and the foundation’s trustees decide to postpone strategy development to wait and “see what happens.” In the current global COVID-19 pandemic, many philanthropists have decided the situation is too ambiguous to proceed. One funder has chosen to wait until a board retreat scheduled seven months from now before making any major decisions. 

When philanthropists allow the fear of ambiguity to paralyze them, they dramatically decelerate their speed to impact. Instead of advancing their mission, implementing top priorities, and meeting community needs with speed and agility, they flounder.

Fear of failure.

Many philanthropists, both new and experienced, frequently ask a universal, fear-based question: “What if it fails?” This is also a question that will want to surface now, when you are looking at ways to make your giving more responsive to needs in a crisis.

Additional questions might include, “What if we launch this new funding initiative and it doesn’t achieve the desired results?” Or “What if we don’t have the right skill sets in place to do this effectively?”

Fear of failure is real and prevalent and heightened during times of uncertainty. 

Philanthropists often respond to this fear with a scarcity mentality—they hold back themselves and they hold back their resources. But at the same time, fear causes many philanthropists to invest their time, talent and treasure in the wrong things.

For example, because they fear failing, they’ll invest a lot of money and time conducting excessive research to unearth every facet of an issue before deciding to launch an initiative.

Fear of supporting the wrong thing.

It’s hard to focus on any one cause when so many demand attention. For example, community foundations—nonprofits that raise money from donors in their community and make grants to nonprofits in that same community—often feel compelled to meet everyone’s needs. As a result, they might fail to take a leadership role on one single issue and find themselves spread too thin in areas far from their original intent.

Meanwhile, philanthropic families often fear they will be overwhelmed by funding requests if they publicly announce the launch of a new foundation or new funding priorities. So they stay under the radar, or even give anonymously, giving up the added strengths that come of collaborations and partnerships.

Fear of loss.

While it’s difficult to feel like any of us are in control these days, philanthropists still have a lot of power because of their access to wealth. Donors get to choose which causes they support, whom they fund and what they expect will happen with those funds.

Not surprisingly, many funders fear losing that power and control. Because of that they act through fear to maintain power. For example, some donors won’t offer general operating support, because they won’t get to control how the nonprofit will use the grant. But ceding control can lead to big gains, like having a bigger and more diverse team of leaders empowered to act on behalf of the cause. 

Why am I talking about fear? Because it’s on our minds. Because fear can hold us back, slow us down, and prevent important contributions by talented philanthropists. The world needs fearless leadership, not fearful philanthropists. 

Instead of letting fear become paralyzing, now is the time to steady-on with focus and passion. Philanthropists can look at what made them want to do this work in the first place. They can review collective assets and opportunities with partners and brainstorm all the many possible courses of action. They can identify their top priorities and begin to implement them. From this position of creativity, focus, and strength philanthropists will be ready to take a deep, measured breath and dive in.

Learn more about how to banish fear, eliminate delusional altruism and transform your giving in my new book Delusional Altruism: Why Philanthropists Fail To Achieve Change and What They Can Do To Transform Giving! It is filled with approaches to defeat any fear and delusion. And pre-order before March 22 to get a free webinar, keynote, or private consultation with me!

Working from home? No problem. I can help you remotely! Are you you interested in working with a trusted advisor to philanthropists? How about a a strategy tune-up or a Virtual VIP Strategy & Coaching Day? With over 20 years of experience, I’ve helped hundreds of foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts and get the most impact out of their charitable giving.I’m happy to talk with you, learn more about you needs and see if I would be a good fit. Let’s schedule a time to talk or you can simply reply back to this email or give me a call at +1-800-598-2102 x1.

This article was originally written for and published by Forbes.

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

About Kris Putnam-Walkerly


I’m a global philanthropy expert, advisor and award-winning author. I help ultra-high net worth donors, celebrities, foundations and Fortune 500 companies dramatically increase the clarity, speed, impact and joy of their giving. I’m the author of Delusional Altruism: Why Philanthropists Fail to Achieve Change And What They Can Do To Transform GivingandConfident Giving: Sage Advice for Funders, was named one of “America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers”, I write about philanthropy for Forbes.comAlliance MagazineDe Dikke Blauwe and am frequently quoted in leading publications such as BloombergNPRand WSJ

Whether you are just getting started in philanthropy, want to refresh your giving strategy, or need to catapult yourself to your desired future, I can help. Let’s talk! Call me at +1-800-598-2102 x1, email me at kris@putnam-consulting.com or schedule a call.

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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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