The Danger of Treadmill Verbs


27199399 - image of female foot running on treadmillSometimes it’s better to hop off the treadmill.

My colleague and friend Ann Latham is a pro at creating effective meetings. One of her secrets is to ensure that everyone is always moving forward toward an identified goal. No wheel-spinning allowed! So when I read her recent post about “treadmill verbs” and how they bog down meetings, I immediately drew a parallel to philanthropy.

Treadmill verbs describe those actions that can bog us down and keep us from moving forward – all in the name of doing good work. You’ll doubtless recognize words like learn, review, study, and plan. “Destination verbs,” on the other hand, are words that describe forward movement and accomplishment. Think of words like approve, decide, confirm.

It’s not that philanthropy doesn’t require a good dose of treadmill verb activity. As grantmakers, we need to plan, scan, meet, discuss, listen, review and more in order to do our work effectively. The problem comes when we continue to engage in these activities and are unable to move past them. Hence, we’re stuck on a treadmill of our own making rather than making forward strides.

Think of your work as a journey. Focus on your destination, what you want to accomplish (whether in a multi-year grant initiative or in today’s meeting), and how you’ll know when you’ve arrived. Then, think about the activities (verbs) that will speed you down the path you’ve laid out, and which will keep you running in place.

Here’s a challenge:

  1. Take a look at the list of treadmill verbs and destination verbs below. Feel free to add your own to either list.
  2. Pay attention to how often you hear or say each of them in the context of your work over the next week or so.
  3. Then, start inserting destination verbs into your own conversations in place of treadmill verbs whenever you can.

My bet is that you’ll begin to see some movement and forward momentum where things may have stalled out before!

Treadmill verbs

Conduct due diligence

Destination verbs


*Some verbs can be either treadmill verbs or destination verbs, depending on the context.

Again, it’s not that treadmill verbs are bad activities – we need them to do our work thoroughly and effectively. But when too much of our time and effort are spent on treadmill verb activities, we deny ourselves the ability to deliver the kind of impact we want and our communities deserve. So get off that treadmill and make some real strides!

© 2017 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.


Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, has helped to transform the impact of top global philanthropies for over 18 years. A member of the Million Dollar Consultant Hall of Fame and named one of America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers. Author of the award-winning book Confident Giving: Sage Advice for Funders, which was named one of “The 10 Best Corporate Social Responsibility Books.” For more ways to improve your giving, visit Putnam Consulting Group.


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