Tips for Adopting a Trust-Based Philanthropy Approach

If you work in philanthropy, odds are that you have heard some buzz about trust-based philanthropy. While the approach isn’t necessarily new, it was catapulted into the national spotlight early last year, when the onset of a global pandemic pushed many in philanthropy to recognize the importance of trusting the leadership of nonprofits and communities. In fact, 800 foundations signed a pledge to adopt more trust-based practices in order to move money more quickly and with fewer restrictions.

Trust-based philanthropy is so far from the compliance-oriented culture of traditional philanthropy that it can raise a lot of eyebrows. A question that often comes up is: How do you ensure grantee accountability if you are simply writing a check and walking away?

Trust-based philanthropy is not about “blind trust”; it is a rigorous practice rooted in relationship-building, learning, and mutual accountability. Underlying all of that is a commitment to recognizing and redistributing power. This requires a constant self-reckoning with your own power and privilege: both in your role as a funder, and in your position in a society that has systematically suppressed and oppressed Black, Indigenous and people of color communities, and other marginalized groups.

At the interpersonal level, it is impossible to deny the inherent power imbalance that exists between funders and grantees. Funders get to decide how resources are allocated and disseminated, and nonprofits need those resources to do their work. Despite its best intentions, traditional philanthropy has inhibited its grantee relationships by perpetuating structures and practices that treat grantees as supplicants rather than partners. In fact, a recent study from the Open Road Alliance found that funder-created obstacles account for nearly half of the roadblocks that prevent nonprofits from achieving their intended impact.

So what can we do about this? The first step is to examine your organization’s grantmaking practices and culture and invite a discussion with colleagues:

  • Is our work helping or hindering us in building genuine, honest relationships with grantee partners?
  • How can we show up differently to embody a spirit of partnership with grantees, and learn with and from them?
  • How can we work harder to recognize my own blind spots and assumptions about what makes a grantee trustworthy?
  • How can we be more intentional about naming and alleviating power imbalances in our work and the issues we seek to address?

On a more practical level, there are six interrelated principles of trust-based grantmaking that can help put trust-based values into action:

  1. Give Multi-Year Unrestricted Funding: The work of nonprofits is long-term and unpredictable. Multi-year, unrestricted funding gives grantees the flexibility to assess and determine where grant dollars are most needed, and allows for innovation, emergent action, and sustainability.
  2. Do the Homework: Oftentimes, nonprofits have to jump through countless hoops just to be invited to submit a proposal. Trust-based philanthropy flips that script, making it the funder’s responsibility to get to know prospective grantees, saving nonprofits time in the early stages of the vetting process.
  3. Simplify and Streamline Paperwork: Nonprofits spend an inordinate amount of time on funder-driven applications and reports, which can distract them from their mission-critical work. Streamlined approaches focused on dialogue and learning can pave the way for deeper relationships and mutual accountability.
  4. Be transparent & Responsive: Open, honest, and transparent communication supports relationships rooted in trust and mutual accountability. When funders model vulnerability and power-consciousness, it signals to grantees that they can show up more fully.
  5. Solicit and Act on Feedback: Philanthropy doesn’t have all the answers. Grantees and communities provide valuable perspective that can inform a funder’s strategy and approach, inherently making our work more successful in the long run.
  6. Offer Support Beyond the Check: Responsive, adaptive, non-monetary support bolsters leadership, capacity, and organizational health. This is especially critical for organizations that have historically gone without the same level of networks or support than their more established peers.

Whether you are part of an organization that is already doing much of the above, or one that is still rooted in a lot of traditional compliance-oriented practices, remember that this work is a constant journey and there is always room for growth and improvement. Ultimately, if we want to ensure that trust-based philanthropy becomes the norm, it will take each of us using our own roles and resources to recognize and redistribute power. Please join us.