Reflections on The Promise of Trust-Based Philanthropy

Taking action toward more equitable outcomes

The ultimate goal for shifting, sharing, or giving up power in philanthropy and philanthropic giving is to make room for and support nonprofits, grassroots organizations, and community leaders to do their best work. This was the theme of “Sharing Power to Advance Impact: The Promise of Trust-Based Philanthropy,” a Social Innovation Forum (SIF) Funder Education event that took place on July 26th. 

Learnings from the event:

During this impactful and immensely thought-provoking event, Carrie Avery, President of the Durfee Foundation, and John Brothers, President of the T. Rowe Price Foundation, came together in a conversation moderated by Shaady Salehi, Executive Director of the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, to discuss ways in which funders can implement trust-based giving practices to shift power and help grow the nonprofit ecosystem. 

The Trust-Based Philanthropy Project defines trust-based giving as, “An approach to giving that addresses the inherent power imbalances that exist between funders, nonprofits, and the communities they serve.”

As it stands, philanthropy today continues to uphold and perpetuate fundamental power imbalances designed to favor funders. Funders wield the power to not only distribute funding as they see fit but also to dictate the ways in which nonprofits use that funding. 

The bulk of philanthropic systems are set up for the nonprofits to be accountable to the funders. This traditional model not only hoards power for the funders, but also distracts nonprofits from actually doing their work, and perpetuates a toxic culture of deference, forced gratitude, and even fear of losing financial support that can end up in burnout or worse for nonprofit leaders and community organizers. These systems can also have broader implications and consequences for the work these nonprofits do and the communities they serve. 

Is it likely that, within the systems we live in, philanthropic power can ever truly be given up or meaningfully shifted? I’m not sure. Nonprofits exist to meet emergent community needs that are not being addressed by the government or similar institutions — and within current social and economic systems — private funding is the best, most direct way for nonprofits to do their work. In order to ensure equitable allocation of resources that center community needs, there are practices that funders can implement that foster relationship with and build trust amongst the nonprofits they fund. 

Practices that make a difference: 

  1. A key element of this work is recognizing that racial equity must be at the forefront of implementing trust-based practices across the board. 
    - Truthfully, trust-based philanthropy has existed as long as philanthropy itself. Wealthy, White communities have taken advantage of non-taxable philanthropic giving to distribute money amongst their most trusted foundations and organizations. The difference is that this trust has always been reserved for their peers: others in the predominantly White philanthropic community. 
  2.  It’s time that funders start learning to trust, unreservedly, the communities of people who don’t inherently (through Whiteness) have access to networks and money to support their charitable endeavors.
    - This involves not only giving to nonprofits led by people of the global majority but also pointing the racial equity lens internally. 
  3. Foundations must take on the responsibility of hiring representative staff and board members who can contribute to internal accountability and more equitable decision-making.                                                                            - Establishing accountability partners amongst peer funders and foundations removes the burden of accountability-related emotional labor from nonprofit leaders who are already overworked and overextended. 

One thing is certainly clear: while relationships and trust between funders and grantees are two-way streets, the onus must be on the funders to initiate the relationship and demonstrate trust through unconditional giving and support of community organizations. For too long, nonprofits have had to go above and beyond their strenuous day-to-day work to meet funders where they’re at, thereby sacrificing time, money, and energy that could be better used in carrying out their missions and service. 

In order to work toward more equitable distributions of power and money, funders must make the effort to listen to the needs of nonprofits.

It is imperative that the philanthropic paradigm is flipped such that funders meet nonprofits where they’re at, to better understand their needs and the needs of the communities they serve. 


So, what are the next steps? How can funders take learnings from this event, and from Trust-Based Philanthropy, and take actionable steps toward more equitable philanthropic outcomes? 

As you’ve read, there are many ways in which funders can start implementing trust-based practices in their giving. However, both Carrie and John, endorsed by Shaady, emphasized that the first step is, as cliche as it sounds, to listen and learn, with the intent to apply those learnings. Do the homework on what your community needs, who are working to meet those needs, and how can you, as a funder, offer help with the least amount of collateral unintended harm. 

The reality in philanthropy is that nonprofits, unfortunately, cannot exist or effectively serve their communities without significant support from generous funders. Until the day hopefully comes when this paradigm shifts, or is reconstructed entirely, the funder community must continue to engage in their own learning and implementation of informed, explicitly anti-racist trust-based giving practices. The most impactful use of funder power and resources is to actively direct them toward equity, racial justice, and community empowerment. 

**To learn more about the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project’s steps for implementing trust-based giving practices, and to see how far along you are on your trust-based journey, download this self-reflection tool** 

Funder Education Blog #1

About the Author: Aditi is the Social Justice Philanthropy Fellow at the Social Innovation Forum, where she works on cultivating Funder Education programming and materials. She is passionate about integrating more equitable practices in the philanthropic sector, particularly with an anti-racism lens. Aditi is studying for her Master's in Public Administration at Northeastern University with an expected graduation in May 2022. 

“Sharing Power to Advance Impact: The Promise of Trust-Based Philanthropy'' was an event put on as part of the Social Innovation Forum’s Funder Education programming. Funder Education at SIF is focused on engaging our funder community in continued learning about how to make grantmaking, and philanthropy as a whole, more equitable and accessible. Our next Funder Education event is a conversation about equitable grantmaking practices with Meg Massey and Ben Wrobel, authors of “Letting Go: How Philanthropists and Impact Investors Can Do More Good by Giving Up Control”. This event will take place virtually on September 21 at 2 pm