What’s your ‘secret weapon’​ in philanthropy?


Kris Putnam-Walkerly


Free yourself from the daily grind and support your best work.

Keeping up with board meetings, grant applications, new partnerships, changes in technology and more can make the day-to-day work of managing a foundation very full, and sometimes overflowing. Every foundation CEO or board chair needs to create space for something more, though—your own way of pausing the routine and thinking bigger. I like to call it a ‘secret weapon.’ It varies for each individual, but the outcome is the same: allowing time to better reflect, think and inform your philanthropy.

What do you read?
There’s no shortage of information available to better advise your work. Most clients I talk to are frustrated with information overload. Yes, that is something you have to consider before you subscribe to 25 different email newsletters. But think about the challenges that are really holding you back right now—internal communication, evaluating grantee success, whatever it may be—and seek out one or two related websites or email newsletters to review regularly. Then set aside time to really do it. I know one community foundation leader who was frustrated that her staff didn’t seem to know the history of the place they were serving. She created a reading list of books that helped define the city and the civic and community leaders who shaped its history. And she made her staff set aside time in their workdays just for reading.

Where can you build camaraderie?
You have a conference coming up in two weeks, but you’re behind in your grant application review. You want to prioritize what you think is most important for the foundation, so you cancel your trip to the conference. Don’t! Getting out of your office and sitting face-to-face with others who are dealing with the same challenges of philanthropy is critical. This is the way to break through the bubble of your daily work and see how your peers are handling some of the very same issues. You may be surprised at the relationships you build with other philanthropists and board members, regardless of your different areas of focus. Whether you support educational scholarships, public health care, or the environment, every foundation is confronted with the same aspects of managing the business and financial investments. The work of philanthropy is meant to be long-term—take the time to invest in relationships that can be with you for the duration as your work grows.

Whom do you confide in?
Everyone needs an advisor or coach to guide them through day-to-day decision making and strategy implementation. Someone who is an expert in the industry, whom you can trust and confide in and who has a third-party, objective view of the situation. No one does their work alone, whether you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a public school teacher. In order to get out of your head, you need to find that trusted advisor who understands you and your work, who will serve as a reliable sounding board but also push your thinking, help you question where you are going and support you in setting and prioritizing your goals. Burnout and frustration are problems in every industry, and if you want to avoid them, having a trusted advisor to lean on is essential. There will always be issues that you can’t discuss with other board members or staff. It might be about dealing with conflict, considering a risky new approach, or just needing someone to challenge your thinking. Having a trusted advisor means being able to lay out personal and professional goals and know that someone will hold you to them.

Taking the time to reflect on your work and get outside of your bubble is essential to being successful in philanthropy. You might do this by cultivating people, resources, places, or networks where you can go to learn, recharge, or divulge your fears and have the confidence that you’re going to get good feedback. Whatever your approach to reinvigorating your work, consider it your secret weapon and use it whenever you need it. We all need a little extra superpower sometimes.

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

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