Exploring the Pillars of Trust-Based Philanthropy: Transparent and Responsive Communication

By Philip Li

President & CEO

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.

I was at an engaging talk this past weekend that reminded me why effective communication must be at the core of our work at the foundation. The talk topic was ‘How to use behavioral economics to shape food policy and make choices of what to put in our bodies.’  Some of the ideas that were discussed are common here in New York City: taxing sugar-laden beverages and providing calorie information on menus. But one research study grabbed my attention (I know, it may not sound that exciting, but stick with me here!). 

In the study, there was a control group which received no information, a second that got calorie counts, and a third that got the same data but also the daily recommended caloric intake. When members of the three groups had dinner, there was no noticeable difference in caloric intake. But when snacking later in the evening, there were real variations – and the most informed group ate significantly less. It was not that they were the best dieters – the difference was that receiving good communication provided them with context,which gave them a better understanding and a sense of the larger picture.

This need for context is not really surprising, but it is something that we at the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation have at times forgotten. Being clear in sharing what we’re doing and the whywe are doing it is important for all foundations, and even more so for us because our trust-based approach is somewhat uncommon. Recently we have had some reminders of what we need to get better at—being transparent by framing and setting context in order to bring about better understanding.  

As we’ve written about before, we accept grant proposals that have been submitted to other funders. We do that because most, if not all, of the information we want to know is already captured in other applications. Our desire is for grantseekers to focus more time on their important work rather than spending hours writing to educate us. We think it is our responsibility to get to know them. Interestingly and somewhat paradoxically we’ve gotten some comments that we’ve made the process harder by not being specific enough in what we’re asking. Development Directors have looked at our website and wondered, ‘what are they reallylooking for?’  For us, the application is the beginning of the process, not the complete set of information from which a decision is made–and we realized that if we were extra clear about that upfront, applicants might feel less anxious. We read that first submission, and if there’s a possible match, we talk with the nonprofit to get a better understanding of its work, and then if there’s continued interest, we go see their leadership program in action.  

Another example: in the past few years, we’ve begun hosting retreats for our grantee partners to get to know one another, build community, and share ideas and challenges.  Our grantee partners include program directors of leadership development initiatives across an array of issue areas, and they don’t often have a chance to be with others who do similar work. We get to spend time with each of them and we started our retreats so that they could have the chance to do so too. We think of our invitation to join us on retreat as an opportunity, not an obligation, but that’s not always how it’s interpreted.  

We thought that we were being clear that the retreat was optional, but at our first retreat, a few brave grantees told us that invitations like this are ones that they feel they can’t refuse–lest there be punitive repercussions from non-attendance. So this year, we were more explicit about the optional nature of the retreat–and a few folks stayed home to do more important work. In some ways we are naïve about the inherent power dynamic. Both Lisa and I used to be heads of nonprofits, and we sometimes forget that we are ‘The Funder’ and not just Lisa and Phil.  As we go along, we are learning that what we think we are saying is not always the same as what people are hearing. 

We need, and want, to be better communicators—to help others understand our approach and rationale and what’s in our heads.  As with the dieters, we find that providing context helps. A lot.