Trust-Based Philanthropy is Trending. What Will It Take to Sustain It?

  • By Carrie Avery, Philip Li, and Brenda Solorzano, March 25, 2020

Last week, over 200 foundations signed a pledge calling upon philanthropy to loosen restrictions on nonprofit partners amidst the mounting uncertainty of COVID-19. As steering committee members of the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, we are heartened to see this outpouring of action and support from our colleagues, and thrilled that it’s sparked a growing trend toward trust.

As more and more funders recognize the importance of ceding and sharing power with an eye toward bringing some relief to our nonprofit partners and the communities they serve, we have reached an important inflection point. Will everything go back to the status quo after all this is over, or will our sector finally realize the long-term benefits of a trust-based approach?

As champions and practitioners of trust-based philanthropy, we urge the sector to embrace the latter. Let’s make trust-based philanthropy the norm for the long haul, and let’s start by recognizing that trust is a value that should always drive all that we do.

This moment of crisis has reminded us of the tremendous importance of trust. We must strive to build trust among our staff, many of whom are now working from home and need to make quick decisions to support nonprofit partners during these urgent times. Foundation trustees must trust their leadership to act quickly and revise policies in support of what is most needed right now. And we absolutely must trust our nonprofit partners to do what is needed most, without making them twist into pretzels or jump through a million hoops.

Signing a pledge is commendable, but it’s a relatively easy step. Actually operationalizing a trust-based culture – one that proactively addresses power and equity – is where the real work lives. Building this takes time and relationship-building, but our work is proof that it works. In fact, when our respective foundations needed to pivot quickly to support our partners’ most urgent needs, we were able to do it because we were operating on a foundation of trust.

Within a matter of days, Robert Sterling Clark Foundation got board endorsement for one-year grant extensions to current grantees, with no strings attached. Durfee Foundation made the rapid decision to disburse immediate payouts for grants scheduled later this year. And Headwaters Foundation swiftly put out a message of support to its grantee partners while simultaneously forming a coalition with Montana funders to strategize on how to address the COVID-19 situation statewide.

On behalf of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) and the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, we invite our colleagues to join us in this journey of building trust from the ground up. In the coming months, we’re partnering on a series of programming, starting with a webinar on Thursday, April 9 where we’ll explore what it means to build – and sustain – a trust-based culture, both internally and externally. As we’ve experienced firsthand, a trust-based culture opens up a tremendous amount of power and potential for our organizations’ ability to be responsive and resilient.

When we look back on this moment in history, let’s remember it as the pivotal moment when philanthropy shook off the dust from antiquated policies, turned a more critical lens on itself, and put trust and power in the hands of nonprofits and the communities they serve.

Carrie Avery is President and Trustee of the Durfee Foundation in Los Angeles. Philip Li is President and CEO of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation in New York City. And Brenda Solorzano is CEO of the Headwaters Foundation in Missoula, Montana. All three sit on the board of GEO and on the steering committee of the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project.