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The 5 Dysfunctions of Philanthropy

December 07, 2015

Trust-culturesIn 2002, Patrick Lencioni wrote a book titled The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. In it, Lencioni explores the interpersonal aspects of teambuilding in a professional setting and explains how they undermine success. And while Lencioni's team operates in a fictional company, his lessons are entirely relevant to grantmakers.

Here's my take on how Lencioni's five dysfunctions can manifest themselves in philanthropy.

Dysfunction #1 — Absence of trust. Lencioni describes this as the unwillingness of team members to share their weaknesses with the rest of the group. This is completely understandable and a deeply rooted aspect of human nature. It's hard to admit weakness to your teammates when everyone is so invested in achieving success. But grantmakers take this dysfunction to a new level when it comes to dealing with grantees. The organizations we fund are just as important to our success as we are probably more so, in fact  yet how many funders are willing to admit any weakness to their grantees or confess that they don't always know the best way forward? And, as a result, how many of us can truly say we have a deep and mutually trusting relationship with the organizations and people we fund?

Dysfunction #2 — Fear of conflict. Few of us relish the idea of arguing with our colleagues, but we often are so afraid of conflict that we shy away from healthy and enlightening debate or discussion. The truth is that talking through any point of contention in a respectful way — whether it's something operational like grantmaking procedure or deeply cultural like equity and inclusion — ultimately serves to pull a team together and make it stronger in the end. Conversely, avoiding debates, even passionate ones, for the sake of maintaining harmony almost always does more harm than good. That said, grantmakers instill a fear of conflict in the hearts of grantees almost by default. After all, what organization wants to engage in conflict with the hand that feeds it? Imagine how much we'd learn, however, if our grantees trusted us enough to debate important issues.

Dysfunction #3 — Lack of commitment. Saying you're on board is one thing; demonstrating that fact is another. Lencioni says the result of feigned commitment to a group decision almost always is ambiguity with respect to that decision in the rest of the organization. And if that is true for funders, it's doubly true for grantees. Usually, that ambiguity manifests itself as long-term funder commitments to solutions that will take years to gain traction. If your grantee has a twenty-year plan to solve a hundred-year-old challenge but you're only willing to make a two-year funding commitment, how can that be interpreted as anything but ambiguous?

Dysfunction #4 — Avoidance of accountability. Lencioni talks a lot about personal accountability in his book, especially the reluctance of many to call out the poor behavior or performance of peers that, in turn, lowers standards for the rest of the organization. Of course, if we've created a culture of trust where debate is embraced and commitments are clear, it's much easier to hold one another accountable and to understand where one's own individual accountability lies. As funders, we often have high accountability standards in place for our grantees but don't press as deeply within our own walls. As a result, our accountability relationships with grantees are often one-way; they are accountable to us, but we have little or no accountability to them. Imagine what might happen if we allowed grantees to hold us accountable, and if our relationships along those lines were more mutually supportive.

Dysfunction #5 — Inattention to results. In his book, Lencioni talks about those who put their personal success above the success of the team. When that happens, the likelihood of the team achieving the results it desires is diminished. In philanthropy, foundations have a reputation for doing just that — placing more value on protecting their own brands, investments, or reputations than they do on their actual work with grantees. I'm happy to say that I've worked with a number of funders for whom this perception could not be further from the truth. But there is always room for others in our work — as well as an opportunity to shift the focus more to our shared goals than our individual successes.

So, those are five of the dysfunctions that are common in philanthropy, and I'm pretty sure you could probably add a few of your own to the list. In fact, feel free to share an example of another dysfunction in the comments section below and I'll include it in a future post (anonymously if you wish) AND send you a free download of my forthcoming book Confident Giving!

Headshot_kris-putnam-walkerlyIn the meantime, build trust, welcome debate, commit for the long haul, hold one another accountable, strive for shared results for your entire team and be prepared to be pleasantly surprised what happens if that team includes your grantees.

Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, is a philanthropy expert and author of the forthcoming book Confident Giving. To learn more about her consulting and advising services for grantmakers, visit her website or read a case study.

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