In philanthropy circles, people very rarely, if ever, call each other out for being delusional. And that’s exactly why I wrote a book on it. It’s called Delusional Altruism.
Briefly, the book is about human behaviors we’re not even aware of that get in the way of transformational change. It’s also about how to replace those behaviors with ways of working that are much more effective.
Moreover, in a time of deep social anxiety—as we grapple with a lethal pandemic, historic joblessness, police brutality, and systemic racism thrown into even starker view due to COVID-19—we need to be honest with ourselves about precisely where and how we are falling short. We don’t have the time or luxury to live in our own alternate reality. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, this is “the fierce urgency of now.”
While the vast majority of philanthropists are eager to do the right thing, here’s the dilemma: How can you change actions or behaviors that you’re not even aware of?
In advising philanthropists for more than two decades, I’ve come to learn the blind spots that too often decrease the clarity, speed, impact, and joy of their giving. Sound familiar? Here are three of the most common blind spots and, especially amid these extraordinary times, what to do instead.
A scarcity mentality
If you do everything on the cheap—without investing in the infrastructure or long-term success of your philanthropy—you’re creating limitations, not opportunities. Your heart might be in the right place—believing that, by being frugal, more money can then go to your cause—but you’re actually doing more harm than good. Why? Because having such a scarcity mentality often gets extended to grantees, too, typically by your offering little to no funding for the very things that can help them grow and succeed, such as operating expenses, leadership development, and technology.
So what should you do instead? Act with a mindset of abundance.
Now, to be clear, I’m not talking about throwing money around. I’m talking about becoming stronger by being intentionally generous with your leadership, reputation, experience, and connections. Additionally, taking risks, thinking big, and investing in both your and your grantees’ capacity and talent are great ways to act with an abundance mentality.
In philanthropy, as in life, just trying to figure out which way to go can be a significant challenge. As a result, many philanthropies are extraordinarily busy with little to show for it. Absent a clear “X-marks-the-spot” strategy, they churn in relative solitude, creating a mountain of effort—and a molehill of impact. And while some are confronting this conundrum with a strategy focused on long-term systemic change, progress remains relatively elusive.
So what should you do instead? Rather than spending an outsized amount of time wringing your hands on a long-term plan, use strategy as a simple yet powerful short-term tool.
This way, you will not only more swiftly galvanize your stakeholders toward a common goal; you’ll also be far more nimble in the face of a crisis or rapidly changing circumstances. In other words, you won’t find yourself stuck in the mud with a long-term plan that, essentially overnight, has become obsolete.
Yes, you need a reason for being, a set of guiding beliefs, and a vision for the future. But it’s short-term, sentient strategies and “sprints” that really power your journey and allow you to celebrate the successes along the way. What’s more, they create the space to rethink priorities, hold individuals accountable, and seize teachable moments.
You may hold the money and resources that others need—and be the grantor to the grantee. But when you wield too much power, you fundamentally limit honesty, trusting relationships, and so much more. Power grabs create isolating and highly stressful environments. And worse, they set philanthropies up to fail because they lack the feedback loops that are essential to understanding how efforts may be falling short. For instance, if you’re seeking to reduce racial inequities, a power grab only perpetuates the status quo, as you’re operating from within a privileged and uninformed bubble.
So what should you do instead? Cede control and build trust with everyone—your team, your community, your grantees, and anyone else who is a potential partner or collaborator in your work.
A smart place to start in building trust is to always be your most authentic self. Know who you are and what you’re good at. Keep your word. Be willing to say, “I don’t know.” And when you make a mistake, admit it. In being vulnerable, you’ll cause others to lean in with appreciation and understanding. You’ll also build healthier relationships and increase what you can accomplish as a collective.
Remember, however, that building trust takes time and commitment. Be patient, work to find shared values and goals, and never fail to listen more than you talk.
Mahatma Gandhi said: “If you want to change the world, start with yourself.” By recognizing your blind spots and knowing what to do instead, you’ll become a more powerful philanthropist and an even stronger force for good. And now more than ever, that is exactly what the world needs.
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