How Grantmakers are Putting Trust-Based Philanthropy into Action

At the core of the trust-based philanthropy (TBP) movement is an invitation to grantmakers to center their work around advancing equity, ending power imbalances in grantor-grantee relationships, and building mutual trust and accountability. When grantmakers are intentional about building and fostering trusted partnerships with grantees, both parties are better positioned to make the biggest positive impact in their communities.

But as more grantmaking organizations are embracing trust-based philanthropy, addressing the question of what this values-based approach looks like in action has become a necessary first step for most of them. In presentations at our GDConnect 2022 conference, two GivingData clients weighed in with real-world examples from their trust-based philanthropy journeys.

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Elaine, Jenny, and Christina led a presentation on the topic of Trust-Based Philanthropy at GDConnect 2022.

Trust-based philanthropy must align with a foundation’s mission and values

The journey toward trust-based philanthropy tends to look different for different grantmakers because it must start from each grantmaker’s mission and core values. “It’s not merely a set of principles or best practices to follow,” Elaine Mui advised.

Mui is the Grants & Operations Manager at the General Service Foundation (GSF), a GivingData client that has long been a values-based funder and started implementing trust-based philanthropy practices beginning in 2016. “It’s about getting clear on what our goals and values are, and then systematically aligning your actions and your operations with a trust-based philanthropy mindset.” From that solid foundation, a grantmaking team can make strategic decisions about how to move sustainably toward trust-based philanthropy.

 practices — Trust-Based Philanthropy

Foundations like GSF rely on trust-based values to guide these four key dimensions.

Source: Trust-Based Philanthropy Project

As a grantmaker to organizations working to build power among people who are impacted by injustice, GSF’s team quickly realized that a shift toward trust-based philanthropy practices was well aligned with their mission.

When it came to addressing the question of what trust-based philanthropy would look like in action at GSF, the Foundation identified four key initial steps: 1. enabling more collaboration and transparency; 2. providing more multi-year, unrestricted funding; 3. listening more intentionally to grantees, both to serve as better partners and to learn from them; and 4. modifying the language and streamlining the processing of awards.

“This past year, we were at [this] place in our trust-based philanthropy journey,” Mui said, “that we [started] asking our grants management system to do more for us.” As a result, GSF realized that they needed a new grants management system to support their shift.

To enable more collaboration and transparency, they looked for a system with a focus on supporting long-term relationships with grantees and quality data visualization and reporting to easily see and share how their grantmaking measured up to their intentions.

Making more multi-year, unrestricted grants required better budgeting and forecasting tools to allow them to plan, forecast, and adjust new grants and renewals not only based on grant priorities but also on actual budget availability and unanticipated circumstances. “As a response to inflation,” Mui explained, “we automatically increased our renewal grants by 10% during our current grant cycle, and we will likely use our GMS to update our projections.”

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Scenario Planning helps foundations plan out anticipated renewals over time. 

Screenshot above includes sample data.

GSF’s team can now listen more intentionally to grantees, a major part of its trust-based approach. The Foundation looked for a GMS that would allow capturing grantee interactions and oral reporting. “As we leaned into building trusting relationships with grantee partners, we eliminated written narrative reports and [decided to] only require a 40-minute phone call at the end of the grant period,” Mui said. Building deep relationships requires listening and to be able to respond to the emerging needs of partners, whether it’s providing additional support for the health and wellness of an organization’s staff or aiding the support of leadership in transition.

Finally, the award letters process benefited from the Adobe Sign integration, which allows GSF to countersign and return their letters to grantees quickly and easily, directly within the GMS. Additionally, having the ability to use new award letter templates would allow for language that explains the unrestricted funding, removes grant terms from award letters and invites renewal after a specific date, and expresses overall excitement to be in partnership with the grantee.

Overall, leading with values as you explore and implement trust-based grantmaking practices is key. Remember that some habits in philanthropy don’t always serve the grantee and create barriers to trust. Trust-based philanthropy is an iterative process that your foundation can explore and improve on with each grant.

Trust-based philanthropy requires foundations to serve beyond the check

At the Libra Foundation, the transition to trust-based philanthropy started with the realization that shifting from a transactional to a relational grantmaking model required them to extend their support “beyond the check.”

“Money should not be at the root of the relationship,” explained Jenny Herrera, Knowledge & Grants Manager for Libra Foundation, a GivingData client since 2019. From providing organizational sustainability wellness grants to help build financial resilience, to being spokespeople for grantees’ work, the Libra Foundation offers resources to help ground organizations for the long fight. “As the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project shares, foundations have more to offer than funds,” says Jenny.

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Source: Trust-Based Philanthropy Project

Additionally, the Foundation empowers grantees to decide the type of engagement they would like to have with the organization--from receiving funds on one end of the spectrum to a close collaboration on the other. Weekly office hours are an example of such collaborations that program officers have implemented this year to build better relationships and partner with grantees on an ongoing basis. Libra uses GivingData to track milestones and key learnings from conversations with grantees through interactions (customizable touchpoints).

Program officers also record emails from grantees, as well as other activities like convenings, webinars, and workshops that they conduct in partnership with grantees. Anyone on the team who needs to refer back to the knowledge and information exchanged can do so within GivingData. “What’s really cool is that email attachments also get automatically transferred [to GivingData] through the Outlook add-on,” Herrera said. “We use this feature pretty often.”

There is no common landing pad for a trust-based project

Christina Wu, Philanthropy Solutions Consultant for Grantbook, assures grantmakers that they should think about their journey in trust-based philanthropy as a 'spectrum of trust'. As you consider the six pillars of TBP in your grantmaking, you might move along that spectrum. Most importantly, there should be no judgment about where a foundation is along this spectrum. “Each small improvement helps us learn and strengthen our relationship with grantees,” Wu said. That’s why she encouraged GDConnect 2022 attendees to take small steps and to conduct pilot programs to gauge what works.

Whether the ideas shared by the General Service Foundation and the Libra Foundation made sense for their organizations, Wu invited attendees to use them as a starting point to ask themselves:

  1. What burden would this change in technology or process place on our staff and grantees? There will be tradeoffs.
  1. How would the level of organizational effort required to implement the change measure up against the positive impact on your grantees or staff? Use this question to prioritize changes as an organization.

Grantbook offers more on this topic in this episode of their More Good Podcast, where the Libra Foundation was featured as a guest.

Trust-based philanthropy is essential. Your grants management system should make it easier to put this approach into action. This is why every feature we build into GivingData is purpose-built to streamline grantmakers' work and improve the grantee experience.

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