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Avoiding Egotheosis

Published on August 20, 2012 by in Philanthropy

An occupational hazard of working in a foundation is the risk of developing egotheosis.

The condition results from the near-continuous deference that your opinions and judgements are given by grantees,  consultants, etc. — anyone wanting access to the foundation’s money.  Prospective grantees seeking funds will work hard to state their case in terms and arguments that are affirming to the your program strategy.  If they hear you say something stupid, they won’t risk offending you by pointing it out.  Current grantees seek out your opinions on issues to make sure that they can match any shifts in focus that might be brewing.  Everything that you say, think or do is greeted with something akin to adoration.

Constant immersion in this environmental can easily lead you to think that you are omniscient, omnipotent and, well, god-like…

Here’s a quick self-test:  In the image above, which hand is the grantmaker’s and which is the grantee’s?

Most foundation officers don’t succumb fully to egotheosis, but it takes hard work to reduce the risk of contracting the disease, and to reduce the symptoms once it’s been caught.  As a recovering egotheoholic, here are a few tricks that I’ve used:

  1. Draft program statements so that they focus on problems to solve (or opportunities to grasp), but not how they should be addressed.  Organize your statements around questions, not answers.  This is one way to get people to talk about their most innovative thinking, without automatically prejudicing it toward a particular outcome.  Of course, people won’t believe that you’re actually that open-minded unless you take some further steps…
  2. Make a few grants to people who are undertaking a different approach/strategy than the one you’ve chosen to focus on.  Challenge yourself to find one or more grantees at the opposite end of the spectrum, who otherwise share some of the foundation’s core values.  Having both groups in your grant portfolio will make it more likely that you will be approached by people having a variety of viewpoints different from your own, and from whom you can gain useful perspective.
  3. Host events that allow stakeholders with different viewpoints to dialogue, even argue, without anyone dominating, especially you.  My personal mantra was, “Keep you ears open, Joel; but otherwise shut up!”  More often than not, I found that my preferred arguments didn’t sound so strong when others who didn’t share them had a chance to bring their best arguments to the table.  And, of course, it’s not really about arguing, but about humanizing the holders of different viewpoints than your own.
  4. Go to events hosted by foundations that have drawn a different conclusion than you have, but whose work you otherwise respect.  I’ve even avoided putting my affiliation on my name tag.  It’s amazing what people will tell you (and how little baloney they’ll put up with) if they aren’t trying to get money from you!

Of course, I’m sure that you can think of several more things that may work even better in your environment.

The point is to never assume that you’re hearing the whole truth or, more importantly, hearing all that you need to hear to judge the quality of your own conclusions.  You almost certainly aren’t.  As soon as you think you might be, you’re immediately at risk of developing a case of egotheosis.

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