Too Many Steps

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These steps slow you down, reduce your impact, and make you cranky!


Guess what? In philanthropy, it turns out we are the bottleneck. We clog our systems. We prevent funding from flowing to those who need it most.

Why does this happen? We have too many steps.

Yes, we—including you. You who proclaim to be “streamlined.” You who fund evidence-based solutions and arm yourself with logic models. You who are on the frontlines of whatever issue or cause you care about.

You have too many steps for every aspect of your giving. Too many steps for deciding what issue to focus on, and too many steps to make a grant. Too many steps in setting a strategy, and too many steps in implementing it. Too many steps in hiring staff, retaining consultants, managing your finances, preparing for board meetings, and making decisions.

I hope you catch my drift. You have too many steps!

We all have too many steps—me included. As a result, we slow down our speed to impact.

Let me tell you a story about being a bottleneck.

I was the bottleneck to my nine-year-old daughter’s ability to see at night in her bedroom. For months—OK, honestly, for about a year—she had been complaining that her ceiling light was burned out and asking if I could please replace the bulb. Every time she complained, I would think about the steps I’d need to take to meet her request.

  1. Research all those newfangled light bulbs before I buy more (do I want LED or incandescent or halogen? And what is a “lumen” anyway?).
  2. Install the new overhead light fixture we bought for her two years ago. Might as well do that too when I install the bulb, right?
  3. Buy new light bulbs.
  4. Find the stepladder stored behind the Christmas tree in the garage and bring it to her room.

And on it went.

Then one night, I did something different. I looked up at her lightless fixture, ran downstairs, took a bulb out of a lamp we never use, ran back upstairs, climbed on her bed, and installed the light bulb. It took a total of two minutes. She turned on the light and danced around her room—literally—singing, “Thank you, Mom, for giving me light!” I felt like an idiot. What a bottleneck I had been! I had too many steps, and the only step I needed was the one she had asked for.

I don’t want to be that bottleneck, and neither do you.

What “Too Many Steps” Means

What do I mean by “too many steps” in philanthropy? Sometimes we call it bureaucracy. Some people call it red tape. Sometimes there are simply too many steps, tasks, and activities that a funder inadvertently puts in the path toward reaching a goal. I’m talking about rigid conformity to rules that hinders decision-making. Unnecessary duplication. Practices that are unnecessary, inefficient, convoluted, and inflexible.

Here are a few examples of needless steps that I’ve encountered among philanthropists. Not just your average philanthropists, mind you, but fabulous, skillful, and super-smart people. Leaders who are committed to social change, justice, and equity. People who have dedicated their lives to helping others. People just like you. Because needless steps don’t just happen to bad people. They crop up among the best of us. You are one of those brilliant and dedicated philanthropists the world needs, and they happen to you, too.

I bet these stories will sound familiar. As you read them, jot down any examples you can think of—either those your organization is guilty of or those you’ve experienced elsewhere. Count how many pointless steps are involved.

Sometimes funders create too many steps by trying to be transparent. Here’s an example: A foundation wanted to be “transparent” when it hired evaluators, so no one could accuse it of favoritism. Its solution was to require proposals from three different evaluators every time it needed to retain one. It didn’t matter the size of the project, the demonstrated quality of an evaluator’s work, or the urgency of need. A request for proposals (RFP) had to be issued and three proposals had to be received for any engagement. If only two evaluators submitted proposals, staff had to go out and dredge up more evaluators and encourage them to apply until that third proposal came in. As a result, staff spent months creating RFPs, finding evaluators, and reviewing proposals that were ultimately unnecessary and added nothing to the foundation’s transparency—simply stating clearly who they retained and why would have sufficed. Chances are, they knew who they wanted to hire in the first place.

Often funders create too many steps for their grantees. One couple allocates $50,000 each year out of their donor-advised fund. They do this by giving out 10 grants of $5,000 each. To select the recipients, they require nonprofits to fill out lengthy application forms, submit three years of audited financial statements, obtain letters of recommendation from community leaders, explain how the project will be evaluated, and host the couple on a half-day site visit to showcase the organization. It likely costs the nonprofits about $1,500 in staff time to obtain a $5,000 grant.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Philanthropists can easily eliminate steps and cut the red tape if they choose. After all, they are the ones who created all those steps in the first place. For example, The Headwaters Foundation in Montana has eliminated lengthy board dockets entirely. The foundation’s board approves the overall strategic framework and initiatives (including the purpose, grant range, and timeline), and trusts the staff to make funding decisions and approve grant requests. This frees up tremendous amounts of staff time, and they use it to help their grantees.

The Vadon Foundation in Seattle has done a great job eliminating steps. It has the most straightforward and respectful application process I’ve ever seen: “To reduce the administrative burden on potential partners, we ask that interested grantees initially send us an introductory email or call our offices to discuss your program. If there seems to be potential for collaboration, we can mutually determine what materials or information would be useful for further discussion.” And guess what appears immediately to the right of this statement on their website? The foundation executive director’s full contact information.

Too Many Steps Cause Too Many Problems

These excessive steps cause four types of problems and prevent you from making your mark on the world. They reduce speed, reduce quality, cost money, and make you miserable. And I know you don’t want to be slow, inferior, expensive, or cranky! Let’s examine each problem.

  1. Too Many Steps Slow Things Down. Too many steps will decelerate decision-making, delay funding allocations, and grind implementation to a halt. While you wait six months to approve a grant request, your grantee could lose top talent to other organizations, because they don’t know whether they’ll have the funds to make job offers. Your grantee will have to spend too long continuing to search for talent.

     

  2. Too Many Steps Reduce Quality. A consultant colleague once received an RFP from two partnering foundations who sought a nationally recognized consultant with experience developing and managing early childhood initiatives. The RFP was full of unnecessary expectations and legalese, taking 19 pages to explain how to submit a 10-page proposal and outlining all the activities the consultant should undertake and in what order. They’d had months to write the RFP but allowed the consultant only weeks to apply. They refused to allow the consultant to talk to the decision-makers so she could fully understand their objectives, and she was required to be available on a specific day to fly in for an interview in the event she was selected as a finalist. This was a sneak peek at a funder collaboration that would be unnecessarily complex, and she wanted no part of it. She was uniquely qualified to deliver stellar results for these funders, but because of their rigid conformity to their needless steps and pointless practices, she didn’t apply—and they lost out on a quality consultant. I am sure there were other top consultants who also took a polite pass.

     

  3. Too Many Steps Cost You Money. Funders often think their systems, processes, and tactics are necessary for due diligence and effective stewardship of philanthropic assets. It turns out the opposite can be true. To check this, I advise my clients to use a simple technique: Calculate the cost of people’s time and use that data to inform their decisions.


    You can quickly calculate an hourly wage by adding the annual salary plus benefits and dividing it by 2,080 working hours per year. According to the 2018 Grantmaker Salary and Benefits Report of the Council on Foundations, the average program officer salary in the United States was $95,341. Add 25% in benefits (the median average for all U.S. foundation employees) and the average hourly rate for a program officer is $57 per hour.

    Now tally everyone’s time spent on the activity you are tracking— spending three weeks preparing for board meetings, for example, or finding numerous consultants to decide among. You can immediately calculate the cost of all those needless steps, and I bet you will be shocked at the amount!

    I worked with one funder to do this after they cast a wide net to solicit consultant proposals for a project in order to demonstrate transparency and equity in consultant selection. We estimated that foundation staff spent 108 hours over two months reviewing 45 consultant proposals and making a final selection, for a total cost of $6,600 in staff time. This was for a $30,000 consulting contract! In other words, the funder spent more than one-fifth of the cost of the consultant just on finding one.

  1. Too Many Steps Make You Miserable. You hate these steps. They make you grumpy. Consider these examples:

     

    You, the foundation CEO, loathe the end-of-year ritual known as the performance review. You dread it because it always takes a month of your time even though you only have 10 employees. You dread the perfunctory back-and-forth exchange with each employee and the frustration of reviewing performance against last year’s goals, which are no longer relevant because your strategy has since changed. You dread this because your performance review process has too many steps, most of which don’t help you achieve your goal of incentivizing and rewarding excellent performance.

    You, the celebrity activist, hate that every charitable decision you make is vetted by your stable of “handlers.” You feel like a Ping-Pong ball as your desire to help homeless pets is bounced around from agent to publicist to assistant to nonprofit and back again. The worthiness of the cause is vetted against its media value. There are too many steps, and all you want to do is support an organization that’s doing a great job.

    You, as an individual, are increasingly frustrated that it takes you so long to determine your giving strategy. You look around and see your well-heeled friends attending events, joining donor circles, and taking global glamping volunteer trips to the Andes before they decide which causes to support. You figure you need to do that, too, so you jump right in. But just before you hit the “purchase” button on your volunteer vacation, you stop yourself. “This is ridiculous,” you think. “I don’t need a guide carrying me up the Inca Trail to understand what low-income Peruvians want and how I can best help them.”

Why Do We Have Too Many Steps?

We have too many steps because we are delusional. We have too many steps because—although we are paying attention to what we give—we aren’t paying attention to how we give. Either we are oblivious to the red tape we’ve wrapped ourselves up in or we are aware of this problem but aren’t doing anything about it. We are stuck in our ways. “That’s the way it’s always been,” we lament. And then we keep doing the same thing.

Often all these steps made sense at an early phase of our philanthropic journey, but they no longer serve us today. In fact, “red tape” was originally used by King Charles V of Spain in the early 16th century to increase governmental efficiency! Important dossiers requiring urgent discussion were literally bound in red ribbon or string. This distinguished them from less important documents bound in ordinary string. But the concept for efficiency became “too many steps” with the age of computers and information technology.

These steps exist in every nook and cranny of philanthropy, no matter what kind of funder you are. I don’t care if you are issuing checks from your donor-advised fund or running the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. You have too many steps.  And the noble work you do as a philanthropist is too important to cause you to be inferior, slow, costly, and cranky!

If you would like to discuss the unnecessary steps you have in your foundation and how to eliminate them, let’s talk! Simply reply to this email or click the button below to schedule a call. I can’t wait to hear about your work and see if I can help!

© 2022 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.

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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