What IS Delusional Altruism?


daYou may be suffering from it without even realizing it.

Imagine this: You’re out at a fancy dinner. You’re dressed to the nines and looking absolutely fabulous. You’re witty and clever in your conversation. Simply put, you’re at the top of your game and feeling great.

Then, you excuse yourself to visit the facilities. You look in the mirror and there it is . . . that big piece of spinach on your tooth that makes you look like the loser in a boxing match. You realize as your face turns beet red that everyone else at the table must have seen it, but they were too uncomfortable to say anything to you. Your lack of awareness has undermined what was supposed to be a perfect evening. You were deluding yourself. 

Unfortunately, in philanthropy this kind of delusion happens all the time. Foundations that think they’re doing things right are in fact unintentionally causing unpleasant consequences for themselves and those they serve — and sometimes even causing more harm than good.

Delusional altruism rears its head when we are genuinely trying to make a difference on the issues and communities we care about — while paying absolutely no attention to how we get in our own way, nor to the operational inefficiency and waste that drains our foundations and our grantees of the human and financial capital necessary to accomplish our goals.

Funders are just as guilty of delusional altruism as the nonprofits they fund. They often genuinely believe that they are doing the right thing by holding back on investment in themselves. How many professional development opportunities are deemed too time-consuming? How much thicker can a board book be? How many great opportunities are missed because a foundation’s grant cycle is completely rigid? How many funding strategies are overly complex?

Furthermore, funders are even more delusional when they create hurdles not just for themselves but for their grantees. One of the most heinous forms of delusional altruism arises when funders simply don’t pay attention to what they’re doing and the impact that their policies and practices can have on those they most want to help. How many online grant application processes end up being more cumbersome than helpful? How many RFPs take longer to create than the time grantees are given to respond? How many people do we expect should do more with less, when indeed they will never hit the mark unless given the chance to do more with more?

Delusional altruism is rarely intentional, but it is pervasive. And that can have detrimental effects on individual funders and the organizations they support. When we delude ourselves about internal bureaucracy, sloth, or slowness — or when we approach our work with a mentality of poverty and scarcity — we end up inhibiting our ability to be as effective and impactful as we can be in terms of our operation. Instead, why not consider what we need to optimize our operations, and therefore optimize our effectiveness?

To learn more about delusional altruism and its effects on your organization, download the free white paper, Delusional Altruism: Avoiding Self-Deception and Disrespect.

© 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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Kris Putnam-Walkerly serves as a trusted advisor to foundation leaders and high-wealth donors across the globe. As an advisor, Kris transfers learning to leaders and their teams so they build their own internal capacity to be successful in their work. Whether you are the CEO of a larger foundation, the sole staff member charged with decision-making, or a high-net worth donor, the questions Kris can address cover a broad spectrum of professional and personal issues.

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Learn more about this and other services offered or contact Kris today to begin a trusted advisor relationship.


Delusional Altruism Diagnostic Quiz

Is your philanthropy suffering from Delusional Altruism?

Although you and your organization may have the best of intentions, you may be unintentionally impeding your philanthropic effectiveness.

We’ve designed an evaluation tool just for you: Our Delusional Altruism Diagnostic (DAD) shows you where you may be coming up short and where you’re already doing things right.

In just a few minutes, you can complete the DAD yourself or with your team. I guarantee that by completing this diagnostic quiz, you’ll have a better understanding of how delusional altruism is manifesting itself in your organization so you can start eliminating it.

Take the Delusional Altruism Diagnostic Now

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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