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How trust-based values can transform philanthropy

May 21, 2021

PhilanTopic_hands_collaboration_trust_GettyImages_Prostock-StudioWinston Churchill is credited with being the first to say, "Never let a good crisis go to waste." While the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in immeasurable pain and suffering, it has also inspired action around how philanthropy can better address global crises in the future. At the start of the pandemic, more than eight hundred philanthropic organizations agreed to provide greater flexibility to and eliminate administrative barriers for their grantees. With a pandemic raging, funders who signed the pledge recognized they needed to act swiftly and to lean into the expertise of their nonprofit partners. By committing to the values of trust-based philanthropy, an approach to giving that seeks to address the inherent power imbalances between funders, nonprofits, and the communities they serve, the signatories to the pledge agreed to put faith in and share power with those hardest hit by the crisis.

As the world begins to emerge from the pandemic, the philanthropic community must resist the urge to return to the status quo. The need for such a pledge underscored the reality that funders need to do more to make their grantmaking accessible, equitable, and empowering for grassroots leaders. And they can do that by moving to a trust-based philanthropy model.

I know firsthand the power of trust and service. Before taking the helm at The Pollination Project, a micro-granting organization that provides funds to community leaders in support of early-stage projects, I spent a decade as a monk. Four values guided my daily life during that time: faith, humility, relationship, and service. All four show up in the trust-based philanthropy model and offer a framework for how funders — and our grantee partners — can better solve the global challenges of today, and tomorrow.

Here's how those values can reshape philanthropy:

Faith

Monks believe that everything in life is a dynamic proposition of faith. A trust-based funding approach is similar, in that it calls on funders to reevaluate their grant application process to allow more opportunities for smaller organizations. Automatically rejecting volunteer-led organizations or early-stage projects, for instance, closes the door to many deserving recipients.

Over half of the grant dollars awarded by U.S. foundations are directed to just 1 percent of recipient organizations. Black, Indigenous, and people of color leaders historically have been overlooked by philanthropy and often receive fewer grants, less money, and are given less freedom to decide how to use that money than their white counterparts. We are at risk of perpetuating these inequities unless we lead with faith and understand that those most directly impacted by an issue almost always are in the best position to solve it.

Directly investing in communities isn't just a moral issue; it works. For years, The Pollination Project has supported projects that mainstream philanthropy would likely deem risky, including providing seed funding to grassroots volunteers without a traditional educational background or nonprofit experience. But we go a step further than the current trust-based model by committing to an open application process through which anyone can share their vision for a project and seek funding. By providing grants directly to individuals, we allow those without access to other sources of institutional funding — especially underrepresented groups such as Indigenous people, women in the Global South, and religious and ethnic minorities — to launch impactful, meaningful projects. Take, for instance, a volunteer in Kolkata, India, who mobilized marginalized youth to manufacture hand sanitizer and distribute it to families living in urban slums at the start of the pandemic. Community leaders have the passion, skill, and trust to drive local efforts, and philanthropy should grant them the resources to do so.

Humility

Trust-based philanthropy recognizes that because philanthropic leaders don't have all the answers, they must redistribute and share decision-making power. Too often, those making funding decisions at nonprofits are disconnected from the communities they serve. Paternalism and elitism are deeply rooted in philanthropy, and it takes humility to give back some of that power.

A peer-to-peer giving model is one way to redistribute power. In such a  model, a network of grant advisors — none of whom is paid staff and most of whom are previous grant recipients — decide which projects receive our funding. By democratizing funding decisions, philanthropic organizations can address the inherent power imbalance between funders and grant recipients.

Relationship

The ability to forge meaningful relationships is critical to driving social change; in 2020, however, fewer than a third of foundations provided any assistance to their grantees beyond the grant itself. To make the greatest impact, funders must move from solely providing financial resources to viewing ourselves as a partner to our grantees and ensuring their long-term success by offering non-monetary support such as introductions to other funders, capacity-building training, and promoting their work to our networks.

Monks recognize the power of relationships. We lean into the vulnerability required to develop authentic relationships and find strength in connection. I've used these teachings to foster a global community of four thousand changemakers who share learnings, work to build capacity, and form community with one another. Smaller and people of color-led organizations typically don't have the same resources as larger nonprofits, which in turn drives inequities in the field. Philanthropic leaders can support the long-term success of such organizations by ensuring that their relationships with grant recipients don't end with a check.

Service

The trust-based philanthropy model recognizes that nonprofits currently spend a lot of time completing funder-required application forms and reports, which takes precious time away from their mission.

As philanthropists, we must remind ourselves to whom nonprofits are accountable and consider how we can be of more service to the ones we support. We must ask ourselves how we can minimize bureaucracy and free would-be change agents to do what they are called to do. Putting more value in conversations instead of written reports or applications allows small organizations with limited bandwidth to focus more on their work and on creating a kinder, more compassionate world.

One thing COVID-19 has taught us is that philanthropy works better when power is distributed equitably and those closest to the issues have the opportunity to lead. By embracing trust-based and monastic principles, philanthropic leaders can make a more direct and immediate impact in communities. Crises can be an opportunity to change things that no longer work; let's not waste this one.

(Photo credit: GettyImages/Prostock Studio)

AJ Dahiya_PhilanTopicAJ Dahiya is a former monk who is now a writer, speaker, and chief vision officer at The Pollination Project, a global community of four thousand-plus grassroots volunteer leaders in over a hundred and twenty-five countries.

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