Three signs of a scarcity mindset in your philanthropy


Kris Putnam-Walkerly


As a donor, you want to change the world. You seek transformational change. You don’t want a band-aid. You want solutions.

But something stands in your way. That thing between well-intentioned donors and transformational giving is what I call ‘Delusional Altruism.’ Now, by ‘delusional,’ I don’t mean donors are crazy. I mean they’re hindering impact with a ‘scarcity mindset.’

A scarcity mindset is a belief system, a trickster that fools you into believing that you are saving money. That the less you invest in your talent, infrastructure, and knowledge, the more you can help others. This is, of course, ridiculous. In fact, the opposite is true: the less you invest in yourselves or your grantees, the less change you can make.

After advising ultra-high-net-worth donors and philanthropy leaders for more than 20 years, I believe this scarcity mentality impedes talent, stalls creativity, and hijacks opportunities to create systemic change. To detach from this deceptive mentality, you need to recognize how it happens:

1. Limiting yourself based on your current capacity…Too often funders say ‘I can’t’ because they look at their current capacity/abilities and cannot imagine accepting a new task.

Does this ever happen to you? You postpone a project of strategic importance because you are too busy. Or you can’t address the root causes of a problem because you lack adequate funds, so instead you fund projects that address the symptoms. Or you decide not to fund something because you don’t know enough about the issue.

Here’s the thing: You might be busy, lacking information, and ill equipped. You might not have enough funds to adequately address the root cause.  But, so what? Your current capacity, knowledge, ability, and funds shouldn’t limit the transformational change you can create.

That’s because you can increase your capacity, gain new knowledge, equip yourself, and leverage additional dollars. It might not be easy. It might take time. You will probably experience a few bumps and scrapes along the way. And that’s just fine.

2. Not trusting yourself to make a decision…Too often, donors don’t trust themselves to make decisions. Instead, they shroud themselves in a blanket of more information.

Here’s how it works: You know (or are pretty darn sure you know) the answer. Then, you waste time and money reassuring yourself that you’re right. This might be in the form of needs assessments, environmental scans, learning tours, listening sessions, commissioning research, evaluations, and so on.

Look, sometimes donors genuinely don’t know something, and they need to take time to learn. But while gathering data, understanding community needs, and identifying best practices is critical, you must keep it under control.

3. Believing you don’t deserve something…Too often, philanthropists feel they don’t deserve to [fill in the blank].

Here’s what that looks like:  They may feel they don’t deserve to invest in themselves, retain an executive coach, fund a needs assessment, attend a conference, improve technology, hire top talent, learn how they can advocate for policy change, or fund an evaluation.

They think their money should go to help others. This belief might appear noble, but it’s delusional. To have the greatest philanthropic impact, you need to be the greatest philanthropist you can be. This involves understanding yourself, retaining the best advisors, and investing time and resources to build your philanthropic muscle and know-how.

To help others, you must first help yourself.

Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a global philanthropy advisor. Learn how to banish this scarcity mind-set in her new book, Delusional Altruism: Why Philanthropists Fail To Achieve Change And What They Can Do To Transform Giving. Pre-order your copy by March 22 to receive free bonus offers including a private consultation or having Kris give a webinar to your organization!

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