Three Ways to Keep Delusional Altruism from Undermining Your Philanthropy in 2018


42195705 - hamster, wheel, pets.Prepare for a year of greater philanthropic impact!

As philanthropic organizations, we’re hopefully starting a new year with a renewed commitment to do good for others. It’s at the root of every philanthropic mission, after all. And, as philanthropies, we all try to make decisions that are in service to our missions, represent good stewardship, and result in the greatest impact. But sometimes, in making those very decisions, we unintentionally do more to damage our impact than to further it.

I call this Delusional Altruism®, and I’ve seen it manifest itself in many ways.

For example:

  • When funders penny pinch on their own infrastructure or professional development in the name of getting more money out the door to grantees, they’re deluding themselves. No organization can operate at peak effectiveness without investing in its own operations.
  • When foundations create cumbersome grant application processes and huge board dockets in the name of due diligence, they’re being delusional. This process only creates hours of extra work and headache for grantees and foundation staff, in order to create an overly complex pile of paper that has far more information than board members actually need to make decisions.
  • When funders invest significantly in programs or initiatives but do nothing to intentionally capture and share the learnings (both theirs and their grantees’) from those experiences, delusional altruism strikes again. Whether the effort was an unqualified success or an epic failure, there are lessons that will apply to your work and the work of others going forward. If you fail to learn and share, then your philanthropy is either destined to repeat mistakes or repeatedly miss opportunities to improve.

There are many other examples of Delusional Altruism that I encourage you to read about in my white paper, Delusional Altruism: Avoiding Self-Deception and Disrespect.

Fortunately, there are also simple things you can do to recognize and combat Delusional Altruism in your own philanthropic practice. Here are three:

  • Ask “What will it take to do this right?” Whether you are considering an investment in your own operations or an investment in a grantee partner, think from the mindset of doing it well rather than doing it cheaply. After all, if the work of solving societal problems and addressing human needs isn’t worth prime investments, then what is?
  • Always keep grantees front and center. One foundation I work with always asks themselves, “What will this decision mean for our grantees? Will it help them to succeed or make things easier for them? Or does it just make things easier for us?” Keep in mind that this line of questioning can support investments in your own infrastructure. For example, hiring a new program officer or purchasing more advanced software may mean more face time and meaningful contact with grantees and faster responses to their needs.
  • Take the Delusional Altruism Diagnostic. I developed this tool specifically for funders to gauge the extent of their own delusional behavior. It only takes a few minutes, but it generates eye-opening results. Take it individually or, better yet, gather with your entire team to discuss your answers and what they mean. (If you need explanation or ideas on how to improve your score, I’m happy to provide them.)

Delusional Altruism can creep up on well-meaning foundations without being noticed, but you have the power to shine the light on it and stop it before it starts!

Additional Reading: 

What IS Delusional Altruism?

Transact Or Transform: What Kind Of Giver Are You?

Eight Questions to Improve Your Philanthropic Giving This Year

A version of this post originally appeared on the Exponent Philanthropy blog in November 2017.

© 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.


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