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Delusional Altruism

November 12, 2014

Money_down_the_drainFoundations pride themselves on the good they do for others; that's the very nature and culture of philanthropy. However, in my fifteen years as a consultant who advises foundations, I've found that most foundations suffer from delusional altruism.

Delusional altruism is when you are genuinely trying to help people – but paying absolutely no attention to the operational inefficiency and waste that drains grantseekers or your own foundation of the human and financial capital necessary to accomplish your goals.

Let me give you three examples:

1. A foundation gives itself five weeks to approve a Request for Proposals (RFP) that it has already written, but gives grantseekers only three weeks to apply. Five different departments within a large national foundation each had a week to modify – or simply sign off on – an RFP. By contrast, each applicant had to decide whether to apply, decide whether to do so jointly with other invited applicants, develop the proposal concept (possibly in collaboration), write the proposal, and get written commitments of matching funding – all within three weeks.

2. A foundation evaluation director sends an RFP to 50 evaluators to conduct a $40,000 evaluation. The evaluation director had prequalified a “mere” 50 evaluators and therefore received an overwhelming volume of proposals that he had to sort through and vet. Then he had to determine finalists and interview them, all before he could make a decision and actually hire someone.This left him exhausted, overwhelmed, and behind on other projects. It probably took him six months, whereas the evaluation itself could have been done in that time. He and his associate likely spent half of the $40,000 project fee just in their own staff time.

3. A foundation pays a program officer $60 an hour to perform tasks that an administrative assistant could handle for $20 an hour. Countless foundations pride themselves on their low overhead and administrative costs. They insist that one program assistant support two to four senior leaders who are each responsible for allocating millions of dollars in funding annually. What this really means is that program executives spend their time scheduling meetings, proofreading documents, collating binders, updating PPT decks, taking notes, and filling out travel-reimbursement forms.This is time not spent developing new relationships, identifying ways to leverage funding, sourcing new ideas, mitigating risk, thinking, and planning. If the administrative activities could be handled for $40 per hour less, the foundation essentially is wasting that money – and exhausting its staff along the way.

In none of these cases was the foundation paying any attention to the drain on human and financial capital in operations and the execution of its grantmaking efforts.

Do you suffer from altruistic delusion? Here are three easy ways to find out:

1. Ask yourself. Take a project you feel is truly worthwhile. Spend an hour thinking about all the people, paper, committees, handoffs, sign-offs, write-ups, etc., that are involved. Identify three ways to simplify the process.

2. Ask your staff. Ask your staff to do the same thing, on their own or in a staff meeting. Allow these to be big ideas as well as small solutions, and allow for anonymous idea submissions. Prioritize a few ideas, act on them, then discuss with staff what impact the changes had.

2. Ask your grantees. Ask grantees to identify times when they felt the foundation wasn't being realistic, or when the process seemed unfair. Ask them to help you identify solutions, as well. They'll want to answer anonymously; use grantseeker surveys or interviews conducted by a third-party consultant.

I guarantee that if you can suspend your belief in your foundation's own pure altruism and examine ways that you and your colleagues might be deluding yourselves, you'll be delighted with the dramatic improvements your foundation can make on the issues and communities you so clearly care about.

Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a recognized expert in philanthropic program design, implementation, evaluation, and communication. This post originally appeared on her well-regarded Philanthropy 411 blog and is re-posted here with permission.

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