A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Are You the Bottleneck to Effective Giving?

Originally published by Forbes (February 19, 2018)

Are you damming up philanthropic progress by paralyzing decision making and workflow?

Nature abhors a bottleneck. Take a look at any stream or river and you’ll see what happens when debris piles up. The water will eventually find a way around, over or through, and the results can be disastrous. The same is true for workflow in philanthropy—especially when funders are the ones creating the bottleneck.

As funders, we often forget—or never truly realize—how much our decisions and actions can affect our grantees and partners downstream, and thus the people and causes they serve. When we delay decision or action, those who depend on our decision can get caught in limbo. If they’re grantees, they may be unable to move ahead with the next bold strategy or be unable to provide a key service to those in need. If they’re partners, they may have to delay progress, which stalls momentum. Ultimately, our bottlenecks can force grantees and partners to look elsewhere for a reliable ally.

In my experience, there are three main reasons why bottlenecks form: avoidance, overload and lack of confidence. Fortunately, there are things we can do to address each form of bottleneck and prevent them from happening altogether:

1. Avoidance.

Let’s face it, there are some tasks that are essential, but that you simply don’t want to do. Maybe you don’t enjoy reading through grant proposals. Maybe you absolutely loathe site visits. Perhaps you shun any kind of financial review. Either way, you repeatedly push it to the side in favor of other things you enjoy more. Often this avoidance can be subconscious. It can also be signaled by a feeling of quiet, nagging guilt.

Common advice for avoidance is to simply get over it and push on through, but there are ways to make an undesired task more palatable. Try breaking an unavoidable task into smaller bites. Set aside an hour a day, or even 15 minutes here and there, to concentrate on the task. Then reward yourself with another task that’s both pleasant and productive.

Still can’t make yourself complete the task? Try delegating to someone else who enjoys it or who at least is willing to do a good, efficient job at it in return for compensation. This doesn’t mean shirking your responsibilities, but it can make them less cumbersome. For example, if you hate reading long grant proposals, consider hiring someone to summarize them for you. Better yet, consider streamlining your process to eliminate the review bottleneck altogether. Redesign your grant proposal requirements so that grantees are only providing the essential elements you need.

2. Overload.

Often we’re simply too busy to get to everything on our to-do list. This can be especially true if a funder’s work in charitable giving is in addition to a full-time job managing a business or other work-related responsibilities. It’s also detrimental. Philanthropy that’s relegated to “hobby status” suffers significantly when it comes to impact.

Instead, think of giving as you would any other enterprise and consider the manpower needed to get it done. What can you delegate and what requires your full attention to move forward? Design a team made of company employees, family members and/or outside consultants who can get the job done and take some of the burden off your shoulders. In doing so, you benefit not only from relieving your own workload but also by including the perspectives of others who can provide valuable insights and ideas for your giving.

3. Lack of confidence.

Even those who are used to making billion-dollar corporate decisions can lose their footing when considering philanthropic investments. That’s understandable, since giving money away strategically is very different than earning it.

I’ve observed two primary ways that people deal with uncertainty in grantmaking. One is paralysis—putting off decision making until they feel more confident, but simultaneously being so unsure about where or how to find the information that they continue to postpone making any decision at all. The second approach is to say, “I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.”

There are many data sources and experts out there to help. You can do the research yourself as part of your decision-making process, or you can delegate if research isn’t your thing or you’re too busy (see the points above). The key is to recognize that researching to inform a decision is perfectly acceptable—as long as you don’t fall prey to “paralysis by analysis,” in which the research never ends.

It’s also helpful to remember that making philanthropic investments is not an exact science, and there are no universally right or wrong answers. There are many cases where funders were less than confident about grants that ended up delivering stellar results—and many cases where funders were 100% confident in their decisions to fund efforts that ended belly-up. The beauty of it, however, is that philanthropic capital is the ultimate venture capital. Other than perhaps a bruised ego when grants go awry, funders have little to lose when compared to for-profit endeavors. Risk-taking should be a natural part of the process, and savvy funders understand the difference between informed confidence and absolute certainty.

If you’re the one creating a bottleneck, I hope you’ll use these suggestions to open the flow of progress. If you know of someone else who’s creating a bottleneck, please share these suggestions with them. Everyone in your organization—and even those so far downstream you can’t see them—will thank you for it.

Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a global philanthropy advisor, author of Confident Giving: Sage Advice for Funders, and a Forbes.com contributor on philanthropy. You can learn more at putnam-consulting.comor contact Kris at kris@putnam-consulting.com.

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