Bringing the joy back to your philanthropy


Kris Putnam-Walkerly


Here are five steps you can take to rekindle your love of philanthropy.

Renew the spark that set you on this path.

When you first entered the world of philanthropy, did you begin each new day with a sense of excitement? Were you driven by all the possibilities to effect change that you saw on the horizon? When a new project crossed your desk, did the challenge fill you with joy?

Fast-forward to now. Do you wake up excited for your day’s work — or unenthusiastic? Are you driven by possibility — or compelled by deadlines and tired bureaucracy? As challenges arise, do you still feel joy — or only dread?

As philanthropists, nearly all of us have experienced the feeling of joylessness that develops when your once-exhilarating work is replaced by feelings of stress, dread or boredom — or maybe all three. In the face of this joy-killing trifecta, what is a grantmaker to do?

First, understand that it’s natural to stare down burnout and frustration from time to time. Your daily processes and routines may get stale. The results you worked so hard for may have offered much less than you’d hoped. Maybe you’ve encountered too many apathetic grantees who have left you feeling uninspired to champion their cause. When any of these things happen, it becomes easy to lose sight of the big picture and the reasons you were drawn to philanthropy in the first place.

Fortunately, you can put the joy back into grantmaking, no matter how frustrated or bored you’ve become. When your philanthropic work is suffering, here are five things you can do to rekindle the joy of philanthropy:

1. Get up from your desk and go outside.
When you survey the same scene every day — the walls of your office, the stack of paperwork in the corner, the back of your co-worker’s head — you can quickly lose the sense that what you do really matters. Effective grantmaking rarely happens if you spend all your time behind your desk. When you limit yourself to your regular environment, you also limit your opportunities to build new connections and identify unmet needs. Instead of the same old routine, get out of your normal work confines and see the landscape differently: Take a short road trip to a community you’ve never visited. Spend time at a museum or public park. Try to see something from a new perspective, and you might just perceive a new vision for your work.

2. Buck the bureaucracy.
Despite our best efforts, bureaucracy can invade the operations of any foundation. Like a never-ending game of Whac-a-Mole, bureaucracy can pop up unexpectedly and take considerable effort to eradicate. Whether it’s taking eight months to make a grant, slogging through a 200-page board docket or taking two weeks to approve a payment that should be done in two minutes, the tediousness of bureaucracy may be sapping your strength (and that of your grantees and colleagues). If you suspect bureaucracy is the clogging your pathway to joy, then it’s time to start asking questions: Where do your processes begin to lose their effectiveness? What grant proposal steps are unessential? How can you make applying for a grant more engaging and, dare I say, fun for applicants? Take a fresh look at your own internal effectiveness, and buck bureaucracy wherever it’s infesting your organization.

3. Gather inspiration from your hero.
Either in the world of philanthropy or in your own life, who is the one person who inspires you the most? I don’t mean a current celebrity or a figure from history; I mean a real-life person you can reach out to right now for inspiration and encouragement! If you know your hero personally or professionally, take a risk and contact them — ask them out for coffee, a face-to-face meeting or a simple phone call, so you can pick their brain about their perspectives on giving, philanthropy, the human condition, life — whatever seems most relevant. If you can’t make contact with your inspirational figure, make a list of questions you’d want to ask and revisit their body of work. In either case, you may rekindle your fire with your hero’s influence.

4. Take lots of notes.
Not every new idea or initiative is birthed fully formed and ready to launch. You may have fleeting moments of inspiration throughout an otherwise dull day or think of new goals without knowing exactly how you’ll reach them. So take lots of notes. Keep a small journal of your ideas, observations, conversations, insights, tips or other moments that capture your attention and spark your enthusiasm. Your notes don’t need to be related, or be particularly detailed or even make sense — just capture them as they happen. Then go back and look through your pages to identify all the new — or renewed — visions and objectives you see emerging.

5. Ask yourself one very important question: ‘If I could do my philanthropic work all over again, what would I do differently?’
This loaded question is one that I often advise my clients to ask of others when learning about new initiatives or strategies, but it’s one that we rarely turn on ourselves. If you could go back to the beginning of your philanthropic work and begin again, what changes would you make? Would you have chosen a different focus, or maybe a different role? Could you have pursued a philanthropic strategy other than grantmaking? Self-reflecting in this manner won’t change the past, but it will give you the opportunity to refocus your future. Making meaningful changes at the place you’re at now may mean the difference between continuing in drudgery and reclaiming the joy you initially felt in your work.

If you choose to implement even one of these five things to rekindle your joy in philanthropy, the chances are good that something will create a new spark within you. All it takes is a willingness to step outside your office, break with routine and open yourself up to a shift in perspective. You’ll ignite a new vision — or perhaps relight an old one. Either way, you will move forward with new energy and purpose, and your sense of dread will be replaced by one of joy.

Kris Putnam Walkerly is a global philanthropy advisor and founder of Putnam Consulting Group

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