Exploring the Pillars of Trust-Based Philanthropy: Support Beyond the Check

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By Lisa Pilar Cowan

Vice President 

Editor’s Note: Every two weeks, we’ll be exploring one or more of the six pillars of the Foundation’s trust-based philanthropy approach. View previous posts in the series here

Two weeks ago, we invited the program directors from our New York City grantee partner organizations to join us on a retreat. Our plan is to do this annually, so that our partners get to know each other’s programs and build community. This part of our work falls under the Trust-Based Philanthropy principle of providing “Support Beyond the Check.” We also think of thought partnership, support around leadership transition, introductions to potential funders or allies, and lending our offices for off-site meetings as ways we support grantee partners beyond the check – some of them more helpful than others. 

For our retreat this year we went to an IBM corporate retreat center in Westchester County, just north of the city. It is a beautiful spot with wooded paths, Mad Men-era decor, and lots of really good food. The AV guy who was helping us prepare told us he had never seen our circular room set-up before, because in the IBM corporate meetings, people don’t look at each other – rather they look ahead at the speaker. 

For two days and a night, a facilitator led us through a series of conversations and activities that helped the 22 of us to get to know each other, build trust, and learn about each other’s work. We had large- and small-group conversations, and went on paired walks. Participants led sessions on alumni programs, evaluation, developing a racial justice lens, and other topics. We ate meals together, told stories, and many of us participated in a late-night karaoke session after the formal program ended. 

One of the topics we raised on the retreat was an offer to our grantee partners—that we would be happy to provide an opportunity to form a facilitated learning community that would meet between our annual convenings. But we only wanted them to do so if it would be authentically useful—not because we, the funder, thought it would be a good idea. So we took some of our time together to talk through what it could look like, what topics it could cover, how often it would meet, etc. 

At the end of the convening, they decided to give it a shot. Representatives from most of our New York-based grantee partners will meet quarterly in 2019. We know how much each of them have to offer, and we are excited that we can help these leadership development practitioners to learn from one another. That learning should make for better programs and in turn, stronger leaders and a stronger city. 

I hope that we developed the trust with our grantee partners before and during the retreat, so that we can provide a space to talk about what would really be helpful for them. Our intent is that both the retreat and the grantee learning community will provide support “beyond the check.” 

But we are mindful that trust-building in general, and “trust-based philanthropy” in particular, is tricky business. At the beginning of the retreat, we told participants that any time they wanted to have a conversation without us, the funders, they could just let our facilitator know and she would ask us to leave. No one asked and we thought we were blending right in, adding to the conversation without making things weird. But at the final wrap-up, a few brave participants said they wished there had been some grantee-only time in the agenda. And it struck us that an abstract offer to leave is not the same as deliberately planning funder-free time. 

Next time we will do it differently. And in addition to us changing our practice, we will hope that trust between us and our grantee partners continues to build—through conversation, funding, and simply hanging out together. In my mind, once someone has seen me sing Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” they will never hesitate to ask me for any kind of help. Except, perhaps, for me to continue singi


Trust Through Karaoke…