Exploring the Pillars of Trust-Based Philanthropy: Closing Thoughts on our Series

By Philip Li

President & CEO

Editor’s Note: This fall and winter, we’ve been exploring the pillars of the Foundation’s trust-based philanthropy approach. This is the final post in our series. View previous posts in the series here.

My colleague Lisa Cowan revels in drawing on “worst practices” as a way for us to learn and improve the ways in which we work at the Foundation, from operations and administration to grantmaking. So we have been quite excited on more than one occasion when we have we happened upon funder “fail fests,” where our colleagues promise to describe mistakes and consequences. These sessions have rarely turned out the way we hope. Recently Lisa was part of a session that advertised a conversation about what funders do wrong, and it turned out instead to be a critique of what grantseekers screw up in their quest for funding. A proposed ‘action item’ for funders was to get their grantees proper consulting support to help ensure that prospective and current grantees won’t make those mistakes again. Lisa came out a bit stunned by the literal turn of events. And I was astonished to hear that this adversarial approach was masquerading as a supportive action.

See, we have a different lens for our work. For us, and many colleagues, it’s captured in the idea of ‘partnering in the spirit of service.’ This is a guiding principle for us in doing our work, and one that aligns with our trust-based philanthropy approach. It’s a reminder that we and our grantees have complementary, and essential, roles to play to advance the work and bring about change.

At the heart of the issue is power and control. It will never go away completely, but being mindful of the imbalance and trying to address it is a step in the right direction. To wit: we just had a leadership development learning community gathering this week. We were mindful of giving the participants space without us, the funder, in the room. At the close of the meeting, one of the program directors in attendance said he didn’t feel like we needed to excuse ourselves—because he felt that we’ve been learning alongside him and his colleagues all along and have engaged in open, two-way information sharing. To me, that feels like a “win” when it comes to partnering in the spirit of service.

Many others have championed ideas that drive this home. At the core of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ approach is the notion that multi-year, general operating support is a key driver in helping grantees succeed. Project Streamline, an initiative of PEAK Grantmaking, advocates for more straightforward application and reporting processes to ease the intense burden placed on grant recipients. Nonprofit AF, the blog authored by Vu Le, humorously highlights the serious implications of the ways in which our sector operates. And our colleagues at The Whitman Institute have codified and named this burgeoning movement of ‘trust-based philanthropy.’

In this series of blog posts we’ve written about the different principles that comprise this approach. It could be viewed as a checklist of ideas to become trust-based, but I’d propose that it is the other way around. By coming to the work with a trust-based mindset, we engage in our work and one another employing the principles. It’s a subtle distinction, but in my mind a big one. And, it’s not just in grantmaking—it’s also with our board of directors, collaborating with one another and consultants, working with our colleagues in the field, and engaging with participants in our leadership development network and learning community.

We continue to learn, stumble, refine, move forward, and do it all again on this journey. We welcome your ideas and invite you to experiment and join us. It has been rewarding for us to use this forum to talk to you about what trust-based philanthropy is, how it works, and why it matters. Watch this space for more in the months ahead.