Let’s Take a Sledgehammer to Philanthropic Bureaucracy


photodune-8156600-angry-mWe often hear about streamlining philanthropy – mostly with regards to efforts at simplifying grant applications, approval processes and reporting requirements. Programs such as Project Streamline (complements of the Grants Managers Network) help foundations to do this.

Streamlining is great. But sometimes what we really need is a sledgehammer.  Some bureaucratic processes are so ridiculous, they just need to be whacked. We just need to get over ourselves and get on with the work.

Here’s a great example: 300 page board dockets. (You know who you are.) Imagine the joy on the board members faces when they received those reams of paper in the mail. Imagine the hours and hours of foundation staff time that went into those reams of paper. Now imagine that anyone actually sits down and reads them.

I have a client who got his board docket down to 30 pages. He and his staff did this by:

  • Intentionally, carefully and honestly identifying the waste that was involved in their proposal review and decision-making process
  • Making changes to make that process more efficient and productive
  • Making recommendations to their board about ways they could reduce the amount of information and paper board members need to review each quarter, including increasing grant amounts that could be approved by staff
  • Trying it out at the next board meeting

Guess what? The board was thrilled to receive the shortened board materials (duh) and felt they had ample information to make informed decisions. Staff was over the moon about the time they could now spend on other tasks. Grantseekers rejoiced at the simplified application and approval process. It was a win-win-win for everyone involved.

How do you know when it’s time to get out your sledgehammer? You might need to swing some iron at your internal processes if you are:

  • Releasing proposal guidelines that are 14 pages long, single-spaced (for grant proposals that cannot exceed 8 pages)
  • Giving four internal departments one week each to approve an RFP
  • Requiring a minimum of 90 days to approve a grant and send the check, regardless of the priority or emergency-nature of the grant
  • Forcing a consultant or partner to send 14 follow up emails and leave 4 voice messages before approving a contract that you requested and that is time sensitive
  • Delaying interaction with the outside world (partners, grantees, consultants, in-laws) because you’re consumed by a three-month long budgeting process
  • Telling your vendors it will take two weeks for a staff person to approve a payment (when really it takes 2 minutes)

Do you have other examples to share? Please email them to me at kris@putnam-consulting.com – I might include them in my forthcoming book. And if you have ideas about how to streamline – or sledgehammer – philanthropy, consider writing an article for GMNsight, the Grants Managers Network journal. I’m delighted to serve as co-editor for the upcoming edition, which will focus intently on streamlining. And don’t worry, the process for submitting an article couldn’t be easier!

Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a philanthropy expert and advisor. To learn more about how to sledgehammer bureaucracy and streamline your giving, read “Why RFPs Waste Time,” “Stop the Board Docket Madness,” and “Delusional Altruism.”


Kris will is speaking November 12th on “Tips, Tools and Lessons on Multi-Media Storytelling” at the Southeastern Council on Foundations annual meeting in Asheville, NC.

What our clients have to say:

“The Putnam Team was instrumental in helping shape my big picture ideas into an actionable and sensitive representation of our major rural community health improvement initiative. The wealth of tools and connections they created to tell our story are things that we will use for years to come. We would definitely work with Kris and colleagues again.” 

– Allen Smart, Vice President, Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust

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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