Exploring the Pillars of Trust-Based Philanthropy: Provide Unrestricted, Multi-Year Funding

Not the Author

Not the Author

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.

Last weekend I took a yoga class near my home in Brooklyn. The fit and kind young yoga instructor started the class by interpreting some of the dharma. Now to be honest, I usually zone out during this part–I have a hard time taking ancient wisdom from 23-year-olds. But this time the message permeated a bit as the instructor talked about the Bhagavadgita, the Hindu text which speaks about giving: 

“We are not asked to renounce wealth, but rather our sense of possession. Whatever we give will have no value if we part with it reluctantly” (mistakes in translation and interpretation all mine). 

As I sweated my way—inelegantly--through the yoga flow, I thought about that notion of parting with wealth reluctantly, and about our work in parting with wealth here at the Foundation. I thought about how that connects to trust-based philanthropy in general, and in particular how it connects to one of the six principles: Give Unrestricted, Multi-Year Funding.

I have found that it is easy for me to forget that it is not actually my own money that I am giving away. It is easy for me to slip into thinking that I control this money because I am smarter, more strategic, a better guardian of wealth than others. And if I am, indeed, a more deserving guardian–then people who want my money need to prove their worth, and I can and should attach conditions and guardrails to it to make sure they do their jobs right.

In truth, I lucked into a job where I give away money earned generations ago, by the lawyer to the guy who invented the Singer sewing machine. There is no particular wisdom that comes from my many-degrees-of-separation relationship to Robert Sterling Clark’s grandfather, and certainly no more wisdom about leadership development than is held by our grantee partners.

It is only by listening to our possible and current grantee partners that I understand the promise and challenges within their work. And it is only by trusting that they know the best way to deploy their resources that I can hand over funding enthusiastically, with joy and support, rather than reluctantly. Nonprofits have told funders over and over again that the best way to show our trust is to make that funding general operating, and to ensure that it will last for several years. The general operating allows them to spend the money in the best way for the organization, and the multi-year grant gives them a bit of breathing room to do their work without as much worry about securing the next round of funding.

I am not an expert yogi, and so I gratefully take classes with someone who knows more (and who occasionally has something other than poses to teach me). I am not an expert at running any of the organizations that we fund, and so I try to gratefully part with the foundations’ dollars – and to make sure that those funds go to someone who knows more than I do.