Deluded altruism

Mark PetersenBook Reviews, Strategy

The title caught my eye, and I immediately clicked “Add To Cart” and bought Delusional Altruism. In two words, Kris Putnam-Walkerly sums up one of my niggling worries about the grants that I’m involved with. Giving makes us feel good, but we’re deluded. There’s a sincere desire to respond to the needs of society, vast sums of money are granted, but in the end we find our interventions aren’t making a dent on the need. Are we just fooling ourselves that philanthropy is “changing the world”?

Putnam-Walkerly challenges major donors with two simple statements:

  • You don’t know where you want to go
  • You don’t know how to get there

Taking time to thoughtfully focus our philanthropy is essential. In our scattered and busy lives, we’re already being pulled in ten thousand directions. We’re drawn to bright, shiny opportunities like moths to a flickering flame. We’re doing lots of good stuff. But when we fail to define a strategic purpose for our giving, we’ve abandoned good stewardship. One of the first things we should do is agree to eliminate the idea that “we’re changing the world”. It’s a lazy phrase that says nothing about our strategic focus.

Embracing a defined strategy is the first step. The next is determining how to get there. People have proposed many mind-blowing ideas over the years, but the proof is in the pudding. How we implement our plan is critical. Getting there will take longer than the twelve month term of our latest grant. I’m more convinced that what is required is a long-term commitment over a generation, and it also means showing up and getting involved. Change usually happens in increments. This sort of patient capital must be invested shrewdly, but boldly and faithfully.

Read an excerpt from Putnum-Walkerly’s book and discover her recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review here.