The Delusional Philanthropist



How donors with the best intentions get in everyone’s way.

Everyone who gives away money or makes a social investment wants to feel like they are doing good. After all, that’s the basis of philanthropy. We want to help others, make lasting positive change and leave the world and its inhabitants better off because of our contributions.

But too often, philanthropists delude themselves about their own effectiveness because they don’t see the myriad ways that they are adding needless complexity and complication to their work. They are blind to their own behaviors, policies and practices that can cause more harm than good. And they frequently get in their own way without realizing it.

I call this delusional altruism.

Here’s an example: You want to provide a $5,000 gift of general operating funds to a small, cash-strapped nonprofit so that it can ease some of the pressures it faces in simply keeping the lights on and the doors open. In helping them overcome this hurdle, you can help them concentrate more on providing their valuable service to your community. That’s a great example of altruism: trusting those in the field with your funds and believing that they will apply those funds in ways that will be most helpful. But then you require them to complete a 15-page grant proposal with several long narratives and a detailed budget. You also expect them to host you at a site visit.

That’s when your altruism becomes delusional.

By insisting on a complex grantmaking process, you’ve forced the would-be grantee to spend more than $5,000 worth of their time to comply. Indeed, I’ve worked with several funders who have been genuinely befuddled that grantees aren’t jumping at the financial gifts they’ve put on the table. That’s because the table is simply too high.

The better, non-delusional approach above would be to have the grantee submit a two-page letter describing what they do and how unrestricted operating funds might be used, plus just enough financial information to let you know that your $5,000 investment is an acceptable percentage of the organization’s overall budget.

Insidious, But Curable

Delusional altruism can take many forms and often grows undetected. The needless complexity in the example above is but one manifestation. Delusional altruism can show up as underinvestment in your own capacity or in the capacity of your grantees. It can rear its head in the form of bureaucracy and sloth. It happens when funders pay too little attention to their own goals or to the voices of those they serve. It can establish strong roots within funders who work in isolation. And it thrives when funders forget to evaluate and learn from their own experiences.

The good news is that once delusional altruism is discovered, it’s usually fairly easy for funders to understand and move toward non-delusional solutions. For instance, a funder could look at internal grantmaking practices and intentionally align them with the size of grants made and the sophistication of organizations funded. The funder could turn to others — grantees, experts, community leaders, those served by grantees — to help ferret out delusional practices. And the funder must recognize that the need to remain vigilant is ongoing, lest one unintentionally fall into a new or recurring delusional altruism trap.

As with other threats to effectiveness, include delusional altruism in your ongoing thought and conversations about your work — that’s the best way to keep it at bay. Ask others to help you identify and address conditions that cause you to get in your own way and you will strengthen your own effectiveness as a grantmaker and deliver fully on the promise your philanthropy brings to the world.

If you would like to transform your giving with the help of a simple tool, take the Delusional Altruism Diagnostic Quiz. Find out where you may be coming up short and where you’re already doing things right. Even better, the findings from the diagnostic also can serve as a springboard for discussions about practices that can and should change to increase your philanthropic impact.

Additional Reading: 

Is Your Giving Hampered By A Poverty Mentality?

Transact Or Transform: What Kind Of Giver Are You?

Leave The Office And Break Out Of Your Bubble

This article was originally written for and published by

© 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 almost 20 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.

“Kris has a refreshingly clear-eyed point of view on philanthropy. She can cut through the noise and keep things focused, which has made her both a valuable advisor and a good speaker for our members.”

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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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