What Is Trust-Based Philanthropy?

As we enter our third year of the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, we’re reflecting on the stories of leaders and organizations that have embraced trust-based philanthropy and what connects them.

In September, we launched the Trust-Based Story Map, which highlights the personal journeys of leaders from across the United States who are adopting a more trust-based, power-aware approach to their work.

As we take a closer look at these stories collectively, some powerful themes are emerging about what inspires the adoption of trust-based philanthropy and what we can learn from the trends we are seeing.


Diversity in Lived and Professional Experience Matters

Historically, foundations have been led by people who check the boxes of white, male, wealthy, and have spent their entire careers in the sector. The lack of diversity in lived experience and worldview in the field has led to a myopic form of decision-making that prioritizes risk mitigation over community needs, control over collaboration, and compliance over trust.

When exploring the stories of foundation leaders who have adopted a trust-based approach, what stuck out was that many of them had divergent lived and/or professional backgrounds. They were Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) leaders who had proximity to the issues their organizations were funding, former nonprofit leaders who could empathize with the pressure of filling out burdensome paperwork, and people transitioning careers who could apply a different perspective.

As a Black woman and former school principal, Liz Dozier founded Chicago Beyond with the intention of centering trust because of her firsthand experience of seeing what progress looks like when you give community members autonomy over decisions that affect them. After transitioning into philanthropy from a career as a lawyer, President and CEO of Durfee Foundation Carrie Avery’s first inclination was to ask, “What are the rules?” This curiosity led her down a path where she discovered that there was no legal precedent for many of the opaque processes that grant makers require of nonprofits. John Brothers, President of T. Rowe Price Foundation, started his career in community organizing and came into his role with an understanding that listening and relinquishing power to community leaders was the most effective way to make progress. 


Shift Happens When Leaders Anticipate Potential Threats 

In recent years, we have been through one shockwave after another, from the policy agenda and repercussions of the previous administration to the COVID-19 pandemic and its outsized impact on historically marginalized communities, including BIPOC, undocumented immigrants, and people with disabilities. In these moments, leaders who have invested time and energy into clarifying their North Star values can anticipate the challenges ahead for their nonprofit partners. It is the anticipation of challenges ahead and intention to alleviate those challenges for nonprofits that spark action related to organizational change. In the wake of the 2016 election, which fueled rhetoric and action against many of our most marginalized communities, foundation leaders such as Dimple Abichandani found themselves asking, “How do we stand with our grantees?”

As Dimple and her team at General Service Foundation began reviewing grantee applications, they realized that the process was so onerous that it was actually a barrier for grantees to serve their communities. This prompted them to begin reflecting on their values as an organization, listening to their grantees about what they wanted, and moving toward a trust-based approach.

Because they decided to get clear on their values, align them with the work they intend to do, and apply those values into action, they are prepared to promptly support their grantees in the face of future challenges that aim to threaten the livelihood of communities they serve.

As the pandemic came into full swing, many funders were prompted to consider the very basics of how they operated and how they were and weren’t showing up for grantee partners. At the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, we saw a surge in website visits, resource downloads, emails, and phone calls as more foundations moved to offer unrestricted funding for the first time.

What’s clear is that these inflection points are no longer once-in-a-lifetime, and funders have a role to play in being prepared to adapt.

Gabriela Alcalde, Executive Director of Sewall Foundation, recalls a grantee reaching out to them about needing hand sanitizer at the beginning of the pandemic, which they were able to provide. When trust is built and relationships are cultivated, grantees feel comfortable reaching out to funders about support beyond asking for more funding or technical assistance. Trust-based philanthropy allows both nonprofits and funders to have the flexibility to pivot and tackle new challenges as they arise.


There Is No Trust-Based Philanthropy Without Racial Equity

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fatal shootings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by law enforcement sparked nationwide protests calling for justice. Though police violence against Black people happens every day, this moment galvanized into one of the largest protest movements in history. The spread of COVID-19 had already begun revealing the racial disparities that exist in the sector, but now they were spotlighted in a way that few could ignore. 

As the national conversation about racism in the country took place, funders were pushed to reflect on how they were contributing to the problem. It had already been reported that racial bias in philanthropic funding was a prevalent issue. This national conversation prompted many funders to realize that this predominantly white sector has imposed predominantly white norms across all of our assumptions, systems, and structures — which has heavily informed the dominant view of what makes a “trustworthy” nonprofit leader. One of our story contributors found this moment as an opportunity to begin the dialogue about racial equity with their board and used the trust-based philanthropy framework to catapult it. As they re-evaluated grant-making practices, they saw their board begin to understand the power imbalances that exist in the sector — especially the inequities facing nonprofit leaders of color — and it inspired them to embrace equity values as part of their trust-based journey. The opportunity for progress exists when funders are open to having tough and honest conversations about race, power, and privilege. 


So, What Makes a Trust-Based Leader?

There’s not much in the way of a formula for the context where trust-based leaders work that helps create the perfect set of circumstances or factors to make it possible. The organizations of the leaders we’ve talked to do not have much in common with one another; they differ in geographic location, staff size, asset size, staff or board makeup, where their foundation’s wealth comes from, and so on.

But one thing they do share is how they bring trust-based values into practice throughout all of these different contexts and challenges along key moments in their trust-based journeys. The stories of leaders who contribute to the shift toward trust-based philanthropy in their grant-making reinforce that adaptability, curiosity, reflectiveness, values-alignment, listening, and humility are essential to change taking root. 

We hope you’ll dig in to read more about the recurring leadership qualities of trust-based leaders and the challenges and insights they’ve had along the way by visiting the Trust-Based Story Map.

Eddie Whitfield is Learning Coordinator at the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project. This article originally appeared on the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project’s website and is republished here with the organization’s permission.

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