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Adapting To Disruption: A Guide For Modern Philanthropists
Kris Putnam-Walkerly -- Global Philanthropy Expert Kris Putnam-Walkerly -- Global Philanthropy Expert
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Cleveland, OH
Wednesday, April 3, 2024


In an era marked by rapid change, division, and uncertainty, many philanthropists and leaders of grantmaking foundations are grappling with how to adapt their plans to remain relevant and impactful.

Traditional long-term philanthropic planning models are being upended, necessitating a shift towards more agile and responsive approaches.

Whether you are conducting strategic planning or succession planning, planning to create a new foundation or sunset an existing one, here are eight simple strategies to navigate this shifting landscape, ensuring your philanthropic efforts are both effective and adaptable.

1. Cultivate a Mindset of Adaptability and Resilience

In an era where change is the only constant, funders must cultivate adaptability and resilience as core competencies. Rather than allowing the idea of an “unknown future” to paralyze you, let it free you. You can’t possibly plan for every contingency, so stop trying. Decide to be flexible and agile instead, recognizing your plan will likely change along the way. By adopting a mindset that welcomes change, you position yourself to seize unforeseen opportunities and innovate in response to new challenges. This approach ensures that your philanthropic efforts remain impactful and relevant, no matter how the external environment evolves.

2. Recalibrate Your Timeline

If this new decade has taught us anything, it’s the futility of spending one to two years to create three- or five-year philanthropic plans. By the time it’s done, the world will have changed, and the plan will be outdated. While setting long-range goals is great, the reality is funders can only plan for the next 12 months or so. That’s liberating! We aren’t locked into an inflexible multi-year strategy. Instead, we can quickly incorporate new opportunities as they arise, making a bigger impact faster.

Here’s a practical example. I guided a private foundation to create an executive transition plan in preparation for the founding CEO’s retirement in three years. The plan anticipated hiring a search firm to conduct a national search in Year Two. But six months in, an amazing successor candidate showed up unexpectedly. Because we embraced an opportunistic mindset and recalibrated the timeline, the foundation was able to hire the new CEO faster than originally anticipated. As a bonus, the outgoing CEO was retained to extensively train and onboard the new CEO, transition key relationships, and help with special projects. The result was a seamless transition and a stronger foundation.

3. Stop Endlessly Researching

Often what slows funders down is they embark on extensive data collection prior to any philanthropic planning. Digging into data is critical—but only to a point. Often the additional research is induced by fear of failure or making the wrong choice. Research becomes an excuse to delay taking action. Funders likely already know 80% of what they need to know about an issue. Leverage that existing knowledge by brainstorming what you currently understand. Then identify the critical gaps in your understanding and limit your research to obtaining that specific information. Base decisions on the best available information, with the confidence that you will keep learning and adjusting as you go.

4. Clarify Objectives Before Tactics

Too many funders jump straight into tactics before taking the time to clearly articulate their overarching objectives. Pause and discover your “what” first: What specific impact do you want to see 12 months from now? What does your desired future state look like? Then frankly assess your current state on this issue, and only then determine how you’ll bridge that gap (your tactics). Putting the “how” (tactics) before the “what” (objectives) sends you spiraling down the wrong path prematurely.

For example, while I was facilitating philanthropic planning with a family foundation, one trustee suggested the foundation needed to communicate more effectively to key stakeholders. He began asking if the foundation should be on Twitter or Facebook. I explained they could not possibly determine which social media platform the foundation should prioritize, if any (the tactics) without first formulating its strategy and communications objectives.

5. Prioritize

Once you’ve created your plan, it can feel like you have 65 immediate next steps. But you can’t do 65 things at once. Determine your top 3-4 priorities. These are the most important actions that need to be taken next to implement your philanthropic plan. Ask yourself, what is the 20% of effort that will create 80% of our results? These critical priorities transcend any individual’s task list – they must become the enterprise-wide rallying cry for everyone. Communicate your top priorities to everyone involved, decide who is accountable for driving each one forward, and measure progress obsessively.

6. Build a Simple Action Plan

For each priority, list out five to 10 specific action steps required to accomplish it, assigning owners and deadlines to each. Then implement rapidly – no need to build fancy charts or complicated project plans that will be outdated quickly. Your very first step is often the hardest: dropping all non-essential commitments from your calendar to free up capacity for these priorities. Block official “execution time” for them, even if you don’t yet know the exact activities.

7. Constantly Recalibrate

Don’t just set your plan and implementation in motion without ever looking up again. The world around you will continue shifting rapidly, so you must be able to pivot your approach just as quickly. At regular intervals (e.g. quarterly), explicitly reassess: What progress have you made? What’s changed internally or externally that impacts your ability to achieve the desired outcome? In light of those changes, what portions of your existing plan still make sense, and what needs to be modified, drastically altered, or abandoned? Update your priorities and plan accordingly, then continue moving forward.

8. Prioritize Progress Over Perfection

Perfection is an illusion that too many philanthropists get caught chasing. Rather than agonizing endlessly to create the perfect plan, take an iterative approach instead. Quickly develop an initial strategic roadmap based on your current knowledge, immediately put it into motion, and be prepared to rapidly adjust as new information and circumstances arise. A solid-yet-flexible game plan allows you to make progress, align resources, and respond agilely to emerging threats or opportunities – preventing “analysis paralysis” and protecting you from wasting precious time and money. The world needs philanthropists willing to make imperfect bets and continue evolving based on real-time feedback. An imperfect plan you implement is far better than no plan.

As we navigate through an era of unprecedented change, the call for philanthropists to adopt more agile and responsive strategies has never been louder. The eight strategies outlined offer a roadmap for navigating the shifting philanthropic landscape with confidence and purpose. By embracing adaptability, prioritizing action over perfection, and being willing to make and learn from imperfect bets, philanthropists can ensure their philanthropic planning efforts continue to make a meaningful impact. The journey ahead may be uncertain, but by remaining flexible and responsive to the world’s evolving needs, philanthropy can continue to be a powerful force for good.

If you are feeling overwhelmed with your giving efforts or you need help clarifying your giving goals and creating a plan. In that case, I invite you to join me at my Wealth for Good: Strategic Philanthropy Planning for Ultra-High-Net-Worth Families event. You will learn how to develop your philanthropic strategy, clarify your cause, and navigate family dynamics in philanthropy. Seize this opportunity to gain clarity, focus, and direction for your family’s philanthropic journey. RSVP now to secure your spot in this exclusive, transformative event. You can learn more and RSVP here.

This article was originally written and published on Forbes.com.

About Kris Putnam-Walkerly

For over 20 years, top global philanthropies, UHNW donors, celebrity activists, foundations, wealth advisors, and Fortune 500 companies have sought Kris Putnam-Walkerly’s philanthropic advisory services to dramatically increase the clarity, speed, impact and joy of their giving. As a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert, speaker and award-winning author, she’s helped hundreds of foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts. Kris also contributes expert philanthropic commentary to the WSJ, Forbes, Washington Post, Bloomberg, Alliance Magazine, Variety, Thrive Global, Worth Magazine, NPR's Morning Report, and other media. Awards include being named "Philanthropy Advisor of the Year" in 2020 and 2021, "Most Dedicated Philanthropic Advisor" in 2021, one of “America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers" three years in a row, and most recently was a finalist for the 2022 Family Wealth Report Awards for “Philanthropy Advice.” Kris is the author of Delusional Altruism: Why Philanthropists Fail To Achieve Change and What They Can Do To Transform Giving (Wiley, 2020) and Confident Giving: Sage Advice for Funders.

News Media Interview Contact
Name: Kris Putnam-Walkerly
Title: Global Philanthropy Expert
Group: Putnam Consulting Group, Inc.
Dateline: Westlake, OH United States
Main Phone: 800-598-2102
Cell Phone: 510-388-5231
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