Why philanthropists get overwhelmed and how to avoid shutting down


Kris Putnam-Walkerly


How To Find The Reset Button.

A serious, but largely overlooked, problem in philanthropy is feeling overwhelmed. What is overwhelm? According to wellness writer Michelle Rees, ‘Overwhelm happens when the sheer volume of thoughts feelings, tasks, and stimuli in our daily environment shifts our brain and nervous system into a reactive, stressed state.’ The result? Easy things become hard, and hard things become impossible.

Think feeling overwhelmed is not a big deal for philanthropists? Think again. In addition to zapping our creativity and problem-solving skills, overwhelm creates a relentless cycle of inactivity. We stop in our tracks. We don’t know the right path forward, which step to take, or what direction to choose. Overwhelm costs money, drains time, and suffocates talent.

Here are four ways philanthropists experience overwhelm and what to do instead.

1. You feel overwhelmed by the world’s problems. The world holds more than 7.5 billion of us. Sometimes it feels as though we face never-ending challenges. Climate change, income inequality, pandemics, systemic injustice, food insecurity, and war are just a few! Many funders feel overwhelmed by the sheer size and depth of such problems.

The solution? Remember that it’s not your job to solve everything. We’re all in this together, and there are plenty of others working toward the same goals that can help you maximize your efforts. Of course, it helps if your vision and mission are crystal clear. If you can see the future state you want to achieve and why your philanthropy exists, you’ll be positioned to formulate effective strategies for making change.

2. You feel overwhelmed finding a cause to support. Some people come to this work with a specific passion and focus. Their child had brain cancer, and they want to prevent the disease from striking other families. For the rest of us, however, it can be overwhelming to determine which issue to tackle. We care about so many needs: domestic violence or mental health? Climate change or inequality? Is it better to double down on one issue or spread our contributions across a wide range of causes? There are no right or wrong answers, but the choices can daunt us. Toss in trying to involve the wildly different interests of your adult children or the predilections of your company’s CEO, and you start to feel like a deer in the headlights.

The solution? Think of these choices as an opportunity instead of a curse. For example, the Vadon Foundation started by giving to a variety of local causes. But its founder, tech entrepreneur Mark Vadon wasn’t satisfied reactively writing checks when people approached him for funding. Over time, he learned from his Stanford Business School friend, Dave LaSarte-Meeks, who grew up on the Coeur d’Alene Indian reservation in northwestern Idaho. Together, they realized that very few philanthropic dollars go to indigenous communities. So LaSarte-Meeks became the executive director, and the foundation’s strategy – and the entire purpose of the foundation – is now squarely focused on sustaining healthy, thriving indigenous nations in perpetuity.

3. You feel overwhelmed by change. We all think change is great until it happens to us. You might be managing wealth you’ve recently inherited, recovering from the surprise outcome of an election, or taking on your first CEO role. When we change, we must let go of comforting habits. We step into the unknown, and often into areas we’ve tried to avoid. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and disoriented by change, and unsure how to respond.

The solution? When oppression, physical health problems, mental health concerns, and similar major life issues are involved, it is essential to take action. Giving yourself time to rest and recover, counselling, support groups, religion, peer groups, and family can be powerful sources of strength. So too can volunteering, community organizing, and participating in social change activities to eradicate the situations that cause these types of traumas.

4. You feel overwhelmed by a lack of time. This one’s a doozy. Most people think they don’t have time. You are probably saying to yourself, ‘OK, Kris, I get all this, but I have no time to deal with it. Just look at my calendar – I’m booked solid for the next three months. My inbox is overflowing. And I have that big event coming up!’ I understand. When I started writing my book, Delusional Altruism: Why Philanthropists Fail To Achieve Change and What They Can Do To Transform Giving, I wondered how I would fit ‘write two hours a day’ into my calendar.

The solution? The belief that we have no time is the simplest culprit to resolve. You have more control over your time than you realize, especially if you stop mindlessly giving it away to people and issues that are not your top priorities. Meetings don’t need to last an hour, strategic planning need not take a year, and you don’t need to embark on a multi-state learning tour. Compare your calendar against your top priorities. You’ll be stunned to realize how little of your time goes to what’s most important. 

As odd as it seems, overwhelm comes more from our minds than from the physical world. We may indeed have a boatload of tasks to take care of, but how we view our situation has a lot to do with whether we feel helplessly overwhelmed or appropriately busy. Our thoughts tip the boat in one direction or the other.

Feeling overwhelmed is delusional because you don’t recognize the damage it’s causing you and your philanthropy. Understanding how much control you have to reduce overwhelm is the first step to regaining the control and momentum that your mental health and your critical work in the world deserves.

Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a global philanthropy advisor and the author of Delusional Altruism.

This article was originally published by Forbes on 1 March 2021. It is being republished in Alliance with permission.

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