The 5 Dysfunctions of Philanthropy


dysfunctionIn 2002, Patrick Lencioni wrote a book called, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. It explains the interpersonal aspects of teambuilding in a professional setting and how they undermine success. Although Lencioni’s team is in a fictional company, his lessons also are entirely relevant to grantmakers.

Here’s my take on how Lencioni’s five dysfunctions can affect philanthropy.

Dysfunction #1 – Absence of trust. Lencioni describes this as the unwillingness of team members to be vulnerable to the rest of the group. This is completely understandable and a deeply rooted component of human nature. It’s hard to admit weakness to your teammates when everyone shares a drive for success. But grantmakers take this dysfunction to a new level when it comes to dealing with grantees. The organizations we fund are just as important to our success as we are – probably more so, in fact ­­- yet how many funders are willing to admit any weakness to their grantees or confess that they don’t know the best way forward? And as a result, how many of us can truly say we have a deep and mutually trusting relationship with those we fund?

Dysfunction #2 – Fear of conflict. Few of us relish the idea of arguing with our colleagues, but we often are so wary of conflict that we also shy away from healthy and enlightening debates or discussions. But the truth is that talking through any point of conflict in a respectful way – whether it’s something functional like grantmaking procedure or deeply cultural like equity and inclusion ­- only serves to pull a team together and make them stronger in the end. Avoiding debates, even passionate ones, for the sake of maintaining harmony ultimately does more harm than good. That said, grantmakers foster fear of conflict in the hearts of grantees almost by default. After all, who wants to engage in conflict with the hand that feeds them? But imagine how much we’d learn if our grantees trusted us enough to debate with us about important issues!

Dysfunction #3 ­- Lack of commitment. Saying you’re on board is one thing, demonstrating that fact is another. Lencioni says the result of feigned commitment to a group decision is ambiguity throughout the organization. But if that’s true for funders themselves, it’s doubly true for grantees. Usually, that ambiguity comes in the form of long-term funder commitments to solutions that will take years to implement. If you have a 20-year plan to solve a 100-year-old challenge, but you’ve only got a two-year funding commitment, how can you be anything but ambiguous?

Dysfunction #4 ­- Avoidance of accountability. Lencioni talks about personal accountability in his book, specifically the reluctance to call out the poor behavior or performance of peers which then sets low standards for the entire organization. Of course, if we’ve created cultures of trust, where debate is embraced and commitments are clear, it’s also much easier to hold one another accountable, and to understand where one’s own individual accountability lies. As funders, we often have high accountability standards in place for our grantees, but don’t press as deeply within our own walls. As a result, our accountability relationships with grantees are often one-way; they are accountable to us, but we have little or no accountability to them. Imagine what could happen if we allowed grantees to hold us accountable, and if our relationships along those lines were more mutually supportive.

Dysfunction #5 ­- Inattention to results. In his book, Lencioni talks about those who put their own personal success above that of the team. When this happens, the likelihood of the team achieving the results they desire is diminished. In philanthropy, foundations have a reputation for doing just that – placing more value on protecting their own brands, investments or reputations than they do on their actually work with grantees. I’m happy to say that I work with a number of funders for whom this perception could not be farther from the truth. But there is always room for others in our work, and always an opportunity to push the focus more to our shared goals than our individual successes.

Those are five dysfunctions, and I’m confident that you could probably add to the list. In fact, send me an example of another dysfunction and I’ll include it in a future post (anonymously if you wish) AND send you a free download of my forthcoming book Confident Giving!

In the meantime, build trust, welcome debate, commit for the long haul, hold one another accountable, and strive for shared results for your entire team – and explore what might happen if that team includes your grantees.
Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, is a philanthropy expert and author of the forthcoming book, Confident Giving. To learn more about her consulting and advising services for grantmakers, visit her website or read a case study.


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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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