Interview with Kris Putnam-Walkerly

Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a highly recognized global philanthropy advisor. She was recently named one of America’s top 25 philanthropy speakers and is the author of the book Confident Giving and the forthcoming book Delusional Altruism. She is a frequent contributor to publications of leading philanthropy associations and provides expert commentary about philanthropy in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Entepreneur.com, and other media.

During an interview, Kris shared her thoughts on the current state of philanthropy and how individuals can become more effective donors in this climate.


What changes are you currently seeing in donors and in philanthropy?

Kris: There’s an increasing interest among donors in creating social equity and being equitable in their giving. This comes against a background of tragic shootings in the African-American community and shootings of police. At this point there is a lot of interest, but not a lot of substance in deciding what we need to do to create a more equitable society. No one has really taken the bull by the horns yet.


How is the act of giving changing in this environment?

Kris: There is an increased awareness of the need to be thoughtful and informed. Donors want to gain a better understanding of the organizations they give to and the needs of the people being served.

In addition, there are many more giving options now. Donors want to do research, but there is so much material online and through social media that we may suffer from “information and options paralysis.” It’s easy to be overwhelmed. That’s where donor-advised funds (DAFs) can be helpful—they take care of the paperwork and can offer guidance, so you’re not alone in your giving.


Can you share any personal stories about working with a donor or small family foundation?

Kris: A husband and wife who run a small family foundation in California made a lot of local grants to health and human services organizations. They wanted their giving to be more focused and strategic. I sat down with them and reviewed their past grants to find themes and trends they hadn’t noticed. We found that much of their funding was for youth, mental health, substance abuse, and family violence. I asked them to reflect on grants they made that excited them both and they identified organizations that fit this description. This helped influence their future giving


You have discussed delusional altruism as it applied to businesses. Are there any similar situations for the Program for Charitable Giving donors?

Kris: Definitely. For example, donors may refuse to fund an organization that spends more than 10% of its donations on overhead expenses despite what the organization is trying to do and what is required to accomplish that goal. This can be short-sighted.


What do you mean when you discuss approaching grant-making with an abundance mentality?

Kris: It means you’re willing to invest in yourself to accomplish a charitable goal—for example, taking time to educate yourself and learn about various nonprofits in your area of interest. This can also include contacting an expert to help you find the organization that best fits your goals.


What hurdles do grant makers currently face?

Kris: There are what I call “two side of a coin” challenges. For example, while it’s great to go outside your comfort zone when you give, donors also need to trust their instinct.

Another example is following trends when you donate. This isn’t always bad since trending nonprofits have gained traction and may be addressing serious issues with a wide following. On the other hand, you need to decide what you care about and give to causes that inspire you.

To use their time more effectively, how can donors create a streamlined grant-making process?

Kris: Donors need to examine their giving process to be sure it’s as efficient as possible. Identify barriers—if you decide to give just once a year, it may preclude giving when there is an emergency or when a new need emerges and the money is badly needed. DAFs can streamline giving—they handle the details, and you have more time to think about larger issues. Indecisiveness can also be a barrier to giving—get clarity on what you want to do and commit to a particular charity.


How can donors define their personal journey as a grant maker?

Kris: First, identify issues and causes you care most about—what are you passionate about in your giving? Second, develop a three-year plan for your grant-making. Decide what types of organizations you will give to or how you can learn more about them. Third, practice “reflective learning.” Keep a journal on what you’ve learned from making grants or from experiences you’ve had while volunteering. Also, decide if there’s anything you want to do differently. For example, making large grants can tie up all your money, so you may opt for smaller grants. Or, instead of funding globally, you may prefer a local focus where you can see the results firsthand.