How We Constrain Ourselves


seatbelt-629230_1280I fly a good bit for my work. As a seasoned traveler, you’d expect that I’d have strategies and practices I use to make the experience more comfortable and productive. There are other things I do because they are obvious and expected. For example, when in first class, use the first-class bathroom. But recently, as I sat in first class waiting to use the bathroom for more than 10 minutes, it occurred to me that the coach bathroom was identical AND the walk allowed me to stretch my legs. I had constrained myself by sticking to my typical airplane routine and not considering all the options available. Walking back through a half empty plane I was surprised at how many people had a whole row to themselves but never lifted the arm rest, thereby constraining themselves in the process.

In philanthropy we also have our trusted strategies and practices. In some cases these are carefully researched best practices that deliver effective results most of the time. We also have many practices we employ because they are the most obvious, expected and even comfortable. In using them, we just might be constraining ourselves, as I was on that plane, but not allowing ourselves to consider all the options available.

Here are just a few ways in which we commonly constrain ourselves, and I bet you can think of more:

  • Force of habit – We spend a month or more preparing for our board meeting because that’s just the way we’ve always done it. How much time and headache could we save for both staff and board members if we considered other options for that process?
  • Following the crowd – Everyone else is talking about collective impact or infographics or crowd funding or another latest trend so we should too. This isn’t to say that a trending philanthropic topic may not have significant, long-term merit (like incorporating equity, for example), but simply jumping on the bandwagon without considering whether and how a new idea might align with a mission can set the stage for constraint. For example, you might be constraining assets that could be more effectively used in other ways, or constraining your own effectiveness and ability to contribute more knowledge to the new approach by just accepting it as presented and not thinking how it could be even better.
  • Insularity – Philanthropy can be hard and lonely work, especially if you are in a smaller community where you’re the only game in town. But all of us – at foundations of all sizes – have likely been guilty of working in our siloes and not opening ourselves up to the ideas and input of others. Why not break down those walls by talking more regularly with grantees, peers at other foundations, or community members to gather new ideas and feedback about our work?
  • Laser focus – Don’t get me wrong, having a clear goal and a pathway to get there is always a good thing. But turning a blind eye to what’s working and what’s not during the journey and refusing to make mid-course corrections is completely constraining. If you knew the route to your vacation destination, then found the road closed due to construction, would you still try to drive on? No, you’d pay attention to warning signs and map out a different route. Do the same with philanthropic initiatives.
  • Time – Most people constrain themselves by not allowing enough time to think well about what they want to accomplish or move through the steps required to accomplish it well. However, in philanthropy, we often have the opposite problem. We have so little regulation or accountability, that we often take way too much time to think things through and accomplish our goals when we could instead speed things up considerably. We shouldn’t rush needlessly, but neither should we become so plodding that we render ourselves ineffective.
  • Linear thinking – Many of us recognize that the “planning phase” of our work – whether coming up with our next strategic plan or designing our next grantmaking initiative – is a great time to consider options. But we follow that up with a tendency to think “okay, option time is over, now it’s time to implement.” Options rarely present themselves in a linear progression. Often they arise at inconvenient times. But constraining our consideration of options to a linear timeline we create can rob us of countless opportunities to greatly increase our impact and become transformative in our work.
Removing our self-imposed constraints means keeping the door to other options open at all times. I agree that at some point, it become counterproductive – and even constraining – to consider options rather than taking action. We don’t want to constrain ourselves with navel gazing and constant theorizing, after all. But that’s not to say that we and our grantees couldn’t benefit if we were to think a little more openly and consistently about that “what-ifs” every day, and throughout all of our philanthropic processes.


Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, has helped to transform the impact of top global philanthropies for over 18 years.  In 2016 she was named one of America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers, and authored the book Confident Giving: Sage Advice for Funders, which was recently named one of “The 10 Best Corporate Social Responsibility Books.”  For more ideas, tips and tools to improve your giving, visit Putnam Consulting Group to read an article, listen to a podcast, or check out a case study.

Kris will be speaking at National Summit on Family Philanthropy in San Francisco on February 21.  During this session, hosted by the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy, she will explore how family foundations may unwittingly create a culture of disrespect through common foundation practices.  On March 2, Kris will join the “Let’s Talk Philanthropy: The Road to Equity” webinar to discuss key findings from a recent equity field scan.

Do you need a coach to help you through a specific project, strategy, or quandary?  Call Kris at 800.598.2102 or reach out by email at

“Putnam Consulting Group really understands how foundations work. They have a high level of knowledge and are very professional. Kris was clear about what they could do and when they could do it, and she always delivered on time.”

~Christy Pichel, President, Stuart Foundation

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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