We "Trust" You: Intentional vs. Accidental Trust-Based Practices

Trust-based philanthropy has been the subject of significant discussion lately, with detractors suggesting that it encourages a departure from accountability and therefore becomes a disservice to both funders and grantees (a misconception challenged by the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project). As with many things in philanthropy, intent may not always translate into desired outcomes. There is a difference between intentional and unintentional ‘trust’ when we are speaking of trust-based philanthropy. 

Trust-based philanthropy as commonly described aims for two goals: shifting the power scales between grantor and grantee, and establishing a partnership relationship wherein the grantee can influence the decisions that are made around them, and, at times, hold their funder accountable. In its idealized form, a grantmaker willingly opens up its doors to grantees to participate in decisions on social impact methods, to meet its network of funders and other grantees, and to generally help shape the way the foundation operates. It’s a radical proposition that some foundations have been able to achieve (such as the Headwaters Foundation and the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation).

"True trust-based philanthropy requires serious internal reflection on a funder’s systemic role in the philanthropic ecosystem"

It is entirely possible, however, for a foundation to comply with common lists of trust-based practices accidentally. A lack of a well-defined grantmaking workflow leads to bespoke steps for each grantee; lack of adequate systems and data management leads to asking for the bare minimum of application and impact data that is required to meet policies (if they exist!). Foundations may end up using best practices like essential-only reporting requirements, adaptable applications, and relationship-first approaches simply because many of them occur naturally in the absence of organizational development. When a grantor begins conducting trust-based practices without the intended outcomes of trust-based philanthropy in mind, they can often lead to the same uneven power dynamics and nonprofit dependency cycles that trust-based philanthropy is meant to address. True trust-based philanthropy requires serious internal reflection on a funder’s systemic role in the philanthropic ecosystem, and a clear understanding of what non-monetary value they are providing to grantees. 

If you’re reading this and wondering whether your foundation may be adopting trust-based approaches that aren’t laddering up to the intended outcomes, consider:

  • Do our grantees have the same level of access to senior staff and executives that funding partners do? 
  • Have we articulated a clear set of criteria for what a ‘trusting’ relationship looks like to us? 
  • Do our grantees trust us to share our power? Have we asked in a way that will support an honest response? 

If the answer to these questions is “well… no”, you may very well see a scenario where your best practices are opening the door for additional risk. Fortunately, unintentional trust-based philanthropy often springs out of a sincere set of values around empowering grantees and amplifying their impact. With some tweaking and internal reflection, many trust-based practices can become deliberate, powerful statements of a foundation’s values and theory of change.

If you’d like a sounding board to think through these issues, I’m always open for a chat - you can find me on Linkedin or at clarke@grantbook.org.

Clarke Foster Headshot

Clarke Foster

Philanthropy Solutions Consultant

Strategy & Design

Clarke Foster brings a decade of experience in the philanthropic and tech spaces to Grantbook. He has worked across all stages of the philanthropic lifecycle, from the design of employee engagement and social impact pillars, to corporate granting program execution, to nonprofit management of large grants, to on-the-ground delivery of nonprofit capacity development.

He takes a systemic view on the challenges philanthropists face, leveraging his facilitation practice to politely ask as much as possible: “why are we doing it this way?”