The Need for Speed in Philanthropic Strategy


Philanthropists move too slowly. While lives and communities hang in the balance, funders drag their feet. Instead of finding the fastest route from A to B, they clutter their path with needless obstacles.


Here are a few examples of funders moving at the speed of sloths that I’ve experienced while advising foundation CEOs. Do any feel familiar?

  • A private foundation collects endless data to learn about a social problem and then is so overwhelmed by the data they don’t know what to do with the information.
  • A family office embarks on a year-long strategic planning process that convenes family members a dozen times before their philanthropic strategy is finalized.
  • A community foundation can’t make funding decisions until after the grants committee meets in person, and that only happens twice a year.

Why the sluggishness? Philanthropists make three key mistakes: They toss the junk in their way, they make the simple complex, and they become bloated with bureaucracy.

1. Clogging the System with Unnecessary Junk

Funders set their goals, and then they create a bunch of junk that gets in their way. They use this junk as an excuse for moving so slowly. When I speak with foundation CEOs, I hear about this junk all the time.

One private foundation was ready to refresh its philanthropic strategy but tossed a U.S. president in its way: President Donald Trump was unexpectedly elected, so the foundation board decided to postpone strategic planning for four months to “see what happens.” This derailed their momentum, and it was a full year before they re-embarked on strategic planning.

I do this too. When I set out to write my last book, Delusional Altruism, I immediately—without realizing it—tossed in a bunch of junk. I decided that first I needed to take a week off work and completely declutter my house. And get to inbox zero. And finish planning my kids’ summer camp schedules. “How could I possibly focus on a book if I’m worried about a messy house, emails, and how my twins will spend summer vacation?” I concluded. But I didn’t need to do any of that. What I needed to do was open my laptop and start writing.
We all do this. We all set our sights on what we want to accomplish, and then we create things that get in our way and slow us down.

2. Complexifying the Simple Instead of Simplifying the Complex

Instead of determining the easiest and most streamlined solution, philanthropists often create a convoluted one.

If you want to implement your philanthropic strategy, it’s as simple as identifying your top implementation priorities, assigning people to be accountable to them, asking them to come up with a list of the 5–10 things they need to do next, and then holding their feet to the fire by asking for progress updates every few weeks. It’s really that easy.

What most funders do instead is turn a simple solution into a complex one. They spend months creating detailed implementation plans replete with Gantt charts, work plans, tactics, and timelines. Or they claim they’re too busy to start implementing because their calendar is chock-full of meetings, events, and conferences for the next few months (none of which have anything to do with their new strategic direction). By the time they start implementing their new strategic plan, it’s out of date!

3. Developing Bureaucratic Bloat

Bureaucracy allows unnecessary procedures and systems to rule the roost. These procedures might have made sense when you first started, but they no longer serve you. Or they never made sense, and you just began doing them because that’s what another foundation did.

Let me give you a few examples. Bureaucracy is active when you require four different people to approve a $ 5,000 grant. Bureaucracy is at work when it takes an average of nine months for your organization to make a grant. And it’s alive and well when you require three consultants to submit proposals before your program officer is allowed to retain one.

I once advised a philanthropic family to create a giving plan. They estimated the project would take 24 months. I explained it could be done in 24 days. “Why wait?” I asked. “Because our family meets twice a year, once by phone and once in person,” the donor explained. “We think these important discussions should happen in person. We need one in-person meeting to hire the consultant, and two more to discuss and agree upon the plan.”

While I don’t disagree with the value of face-to-face communication, this family was allowing unnecessary procedures (e.g., voting must happen in person, we only meet every six months, etc.) to dictate the speed at which they could attain clarity and alignment in their family philanthropy. The bureaucratic tail was wagging the charitable dog, and it was slowing things down.

Why does bad bureaucracy happen to good philanthropists? No one wakes up thinking, “Let me make life harder for myself and others!” It’s all done in the name of altruism.
You think you are being good stewards of your resources by requiring four signatures on every grant approval. You think you are engaging your family in your charitable giving by insisting on in-person decision-making. But really you are becoming bureaucratic and slowing things down. You are delusional in your altruism!

I know you don’t want to be a sloth. You don’t want to toss junk in your way. You don’t want to add unnecessary complexity to what should be straightforward solutions. And you certainly don’t want to create a bureaucracy!

Join me for Aerodynamic Giving!

If you are a philanthropy CEO or trustee who wants to speed things up, join me for my free, virtual event “Aerodynamic Giving”. You’ll learn how to accelerate your philanthropic impact, chart the most direct flight path by honing your philanthropic strategy, and discover where friction slows down your grantmaking and operations!


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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