Apr. 22, 2021 1:36 pm

Trust-based philanthropy offers us a path to power sharing, beyond the pandemic

"By lifting restrictions on the use of funds and relying on grantees to tell us what they needed, we made seismic shifts in the distribution of power in our sector," says guest columnist Farrah Parkes.

(Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels)

This guest post was written by Farrah Parkes, the executive director of the Gender Justice Fund.
Philanthropy is in a very different place now than it was in February of 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the sector to act in ways previously thought impossible. Endowments were tapped, grants were made without the proposal submissions, reporting requirements were lifted, general operating funds abounded, and — perhaps most importantly — funders were talking to grantees on a regular and consistent basis.

In the face of limited information and unprecedented circumstances, our grantees became indispensable sources of information about the needs and challenges of communities. Now, with vaccine distribution well under way, the question that looms over the sector is how many of these new practices will carry over into post-pandemic life.

As a funder who has committed to practicing trust-based philanthropy, I would like to offer this framework as a model for other members of the philanthropic sector to guide them going forward.

Trust-based philanthropy is an approach designed to address power imbalances between grantmakers and grantees, and is based on the following six principles:

  • Offering multi-year, unrestricted funding
  • Transferring the onus of due diligence from grantee to grantmaker
  • Simplifying and streamlining of grant submission and reporting processes
  • Transparency and responsiveness on the part of grantmakers
  • Providing support beyond the check
  • Requesting and acting on feedback from grantees

Whether they realized it or not most funders incorporated some elements of trust-based philanthropy into their pandemic response. By lifting restrictions on the use of funds and relying on grantees to tell us what they needed, we made seismic shifts in the distribution of power in our sector.

Rather than trying to steer grantee efforts where we thought they belonged, we relied on them to set the agenda and deferred to their experience and expertise. When we called, emailed, and surveyed nonprofits and told them plainly and honestly what resources we had at our disposal to support them, we opened the gates for ongoing communication and feedback and began developing the transparency integral to trust-based relationships.

And when we waived or streamlined reporting and proposal requirements, we made the long-overdue move of reducing the administrative burden on grantees.

All these actions are a key part of the trust-based philanthropy model. Now is the time to lean even further into these practices, rather than retreating to the comfort of the old “normal.”

From our Partners

The official website of the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project offers resources to help deepen this practice and I want to offer three basic recommendations for funders moving forward.

  1. Continue to engage with grantees. They are your single best source of information about what is happening in communities. I recall a well-meaning colleague from another foundation asking me once for ideas about technical assistance offerings for their foundation’s grantees. While it’s always flattering to be asked to share expertise, I felt compelled to point out to them that their grantees, rather than another funder, were in the best position to identify what resources were needed. We must develop the practice of open and ongoing communication and letting grantees dictate priorities, rather than the other way around.
  2. Keep the simplified approach. I used to be a grantwriting consultant. I know firsthand that many funders ask the same questions over and over, request information they already have access to, and generally create conditions that privilege organizations with time and/or the resources to hire experienced grantwriters that can make anything sound good. At my organization, we use a simple grant proposal format with four or five questions and conduct one-hour interviews with potential applicants to get more information. It’s a more time-intensive approach for funders, but also a more equitable one that yields a much deeper understanding of the work being funded.
  3. Remain flexible. While the uncertainty of the past year is something I hope never again to experience, it pushed many of us to see beyond the restrictions we put on ourselves. Funders realized the world would not end if they made grants outside of typical target areas, lifted funding restrictions, and skipped the application process. Going forward, ask yourself which requirements absolutely must remain in place, and what can give way to allow for us to better accomplish our common goal of making a more just and equitable world.

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