Why Foundation Strategy Moves Slowly



Tackle these 6 common challenges to pick up speed.

In grantmaking, it is always important to eliminate unnecessary steps and streamline our grant processes. Streamlining strengthens our foundations, creates more effective strategies and supports efficiencies for our grantees. But just as important as streamlining your foundation is understanding why our processes can become bogged down in the first place.

Philanthropy isn’t the only field that can be slow when it comes to strategy. Any corporation or department of government faces the same struggles in trying to remain responsive to current conditions. The best way to pick up speed when it comes to strategy is to face these six common challenges head on:

1. Fear

Fear is the No. 1 reason work slows down. Funders fear they don’t have all of the answers or they haven’t done enough research to fully vet the project. Often there’s a delay because of fear that the board hasn’t had enough time to provide feedback. But what is it that you’re really afraid of? The purpose of philanthropy is to make investments that have an impact. That doesn’t mean you’ll get the approach right 100% of the time. Having a brush with failure or making course corrections are ways that you build the field of learning in philanthropy and recognize what works and what doesn’t.

2. Lack of urgency in the field

In the field of philanthropy, you’re not dealing with stockholders who constantly watch their shareholder value, nor are you answerable to a public that questions whether you’re a true public servant. There is very little external accountability for funders, meaning you have to take charge and challenge yourself even when outside forces aren’t pushing you to do so.

3. Power dynamics

If there were a group who would hold funders accountable, it would likely be those we serve — grantees and community members. They’re the ones who know what funders have accomplished and what they haven’t. But the power dynamic is such that those who seek funding will never question those handing it out — or the speed at which they operate.

4. Herd mentality

When you look around at your peers and see others moving slowly with their work, it’s natural to follow the same slow pace. It starts to seem as if that’s the way it must be done. Add onto that the development of massive data projects, tiresome slide decks and countless meetings where board and staff are continuously asked for feedback, and you start to see how the “normal” approach is holding you back. This constant checking in and revisiting the work might make you feel like you are in control and being thoughtful, but it will not help your foundation succeed in fast-changing times.

5. Mystification of the strategic planning process

There is so much weight put into the idea of a strategic plan that it becomes incredibly difficult to pull the trigger and take the first steps toward action. In philanthropy, the strategic plan has become the holy grail of social change — we expect compelling and well-written prose, eye-catching infographics, complex theories of change. In reality, the simpler the plan, the more likely you are to succeed.

6. Lack of focus

One of the key reasons foundation leaders often hire an outside consultant to do strategic planning is to keep the group focused. When you have a solid group of staff or board in the room, it’s tempting to throw in a couple of other things you’ve been meaning to discuss that fall outside the range of strategic planning. Be careful: Doing this pulls you away from deeper thinking and visioning and puts your group right back in the more immediate business of putting out fires.

Let’s face it: In today’s ever-changing environment, it’s impossible to plan well 10 or even five years in advance. Three years ahead can be a challenge, and one year is the most realistic. Unfortunately, foundation leaders often find themselves taking close to 18 months just to create an extensive strategic plan.

Instead of spending all that time in a boardroom developing a 30-page plan that gets stuck in a drawer, consider why your foundation’s strategy may be bogged down. By tackling the six common challenges above, your foundation will become much more nimble and responsive to external needs, while also reducing the time and cost of extensive strategic planning sessions. While your planning processes should be designed to move quickly, the work should be intentional, planned and structured to deliver quick and focused results. When speeding up your slow strategy, it’s not about shortcuts — it’s about movement.

To further address fear and other issues bogging down your foundation strategy, tune in to the FINAL episode of my Live Webinar Series on October 30th, “Overcoming Fear.” Get the joy back in your philanthropy, learn 10 ways fear prevents funders from achieving dramatic impact and build your confidence to make you a better funder. Register here!

Additional Reading:

This article was originally written for and published by Forbes.

© 2018 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.

How Can I Help You?

I serve as a trusted advisor to foundation leaders and high-wealth donors across the globe. My clients report immediate and dramatic improvement in both personal performance and philanthropic impact.

If you or someone you know could use my help, please send them my way. Contact me directly at kris@putnam-consulting.com or call me at +1-800-598-2102 x1 and we can work together to make your giving matter.


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.


“As my strategic advisor and sounding board, Kris is always there when I need a clear path forward or a reality check. I am grateful to have her as a trusted, unbiased, and experienced professional to turn to!”

Maureen Sheehan Massaro, Executive Director, Wilson Sheehan Foundation


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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