Overcoming barriers

Overcoming the barriers to transformative change in philanthropy

So you’ve decided you want your philanthropy to be more transformative. Or innovative. Or to better live up to your aspirations around equity. 


But now what? 

How do you put concrete action behind your intention? 


We advise philanthropists who want to take real steps toward transformative change to get moving in three big ways: 

  • By transforming your vision and theory of action: Re-examining your understanding of the problem, approaches to solving it, underlying assumptions, and the ways you understand impact can be achieved
  • By transforming your approach to grantmaking: Re-evaluating the processes that drive your grantmaking, including applications, metrics, investment strategy, what you will fund, risk tolerance, and more
  • By transforming your network: Expanding the number of voices you are listening to, including who is in your portfolio, on your team, on your board, and more

We’ve worked with many clients in all three of these areas, but getting started and taking action can feel deceptively hard. 

After years of watching funders who want to make change but are stuck spinning their wheels, we’ve identified four “best practices” for overcoming common psychological barriers that snarl progress. 

Honor past intentions while creating a different future 

I’ve talked to countless foundation board members and second generation family members who stress about honoring their founder’s legacy and intentions while also addressing very real gaps in how they currently approach their giving. 

In their zeal to live up to a founder’s or a parent’s aspirations, funders often structure their giving around an outdated understanding of the problems they are working to address — sometimes outdated by decades and developed with only limited perspective. Philanthropy cannot be truly transformative when not shaped in part by the lived experiences of the people impacted by that philanthropy. Many founders a generation ago or older did not build those experiences into their understanding of the problems they hope to address. 

Funders can and should respect their founder’s intentions but also think dynamically about the problems they are solving for and the root causes of those problems. Revising your understanding of the problem is not a rebuke to the founder’s vision, it’s an essential aspect of forward-thinking philanthropy and foundational to growing your effectiveness over time. 

Address gaps by building on assets 

Recently, a younger member of a family foundation approached me about helping with a new strategic plan. She felt that the work the foundation had done under the previous generation’s leadership could evolve but that the foundation must first face up to its shortcomings. She was worried about how older members of the board would respond to a conversation about what the prior generation had done wrong.

Whether you’re a 7-year-old in little league or a 75-year-old on the board of a foundation, no one likes to hear that they’re bad at something. I suggested this funder flip the framing of the work she wanted to do. Instead of focusing exclusively on the things the foundation had not accomplished, I suggested she say to her colleagues on the board, “while we’ve had tremendous successes, I wonder if we’re as good as we could be. How can we build on all of the things we’ve done right to take our giving to the next level?”

Such a subtle shift can move board members to embrace change instead of triggering a defensive reaction. 

Don’t let perfect become the enemy of good

Many philanthropists stall, intimidated by the magnitude of work that needs to be done to bring about true transformation within their organization. Individual funders, boards, and staff become overwhelmed and consequently do nothing, lest their efforts fall short of lofty aspirations. 

To overcome this barrier, funders must keep two contradictory ideas in their mind at the same time. The first is that there’s no step too small. If you commit to taking even limited action, you can drive positive transformation in your giving. 

At the same time, it’s also true that real breakthroughs are only possible when tackling all three of the buckets above in transformative ways. The key is to start moving forward where you can and not be daunted by the magnitude of change you want to bring about or the areas of work that feel harder to approach. Progress will often generate more progress.  

Don’t go it alone

My final advice for overcoming the psychological barriers to transformative change is to ask for help! 

There are, of course, a variety of advisors and consultants who can work with you to tackle each of the buckets described above. There are also capable support organizations like Exponent Philanthropy, the Center for Effective Philanthropy, the National Center for Family Philanthropy, and others with a regional focus (e.g., the Philanthropy Network in my hometown of Philadelphia), who offer venues for best practice sharing. 

Most importantly, there are other funders and families going through the same sorts of transformations whose experience can serve as an instructive foil to your own. Don’t underestimate the synergies that come from connecting with peers. 


Many funders believe now is the moment to turn transformative intentions into action. But doing so isn’t easy; understanding the psychological barriers to meaningful change can help to turn intentions into action.