Trust-based philanthropy: a model for post-Covid grant-making?

Clare Wilkins

With many funders rapidly having adopted flexible funding processes in response to the Covid crisis, there are a range of initiatives now exploring how to make these temporary shifts permanent. Trust-based philanthropy could offer an approach. The Trust-Based Philanthropy Project originating in the US in January 2020 with involvement from The Whitman Institute, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and the Headwaters Foundationseeks to reframe how most funders view their giving and, through that reframing, to change attitudes and behaviours in a way that redistributes power 

Funders are challenged to change their mindset from one of scepticism to one of trust. Instead of asking ‘what might this charity not be doing well?’ and ‘are there any risks/reasons I shouldn’t fund them?’, you instead start from a position of believing in a charity’s work, mission, and operations, and recognising shared goals. This puts funders and grantees on a more equal footing, working as partners with common goals that can be realised through the funder’s resources and the charity’s activities. 

Six principles of trust-based philanthropy

Trust-based philanthropy relies on six principles: 

  • Give multi-year, unrestricted funding. 
  • Do your homework. Take on the burden of due diligence and early-stage familiarisation, instead of requiring it from the grantee. Use publicly available information, reduce pre-proposal requirements, and look beyond your existing networks to find new charities working in areas of shared interest. 
  • Simplify and streamline paperwork. Accept proposals and reports written for others, only ask for a full proposal if there is a high chance of success and consider non-written ways of fact-finding (phone calls, zoom chats etc). 
  • Be transparent and responsive. Be clear and transparent about your position and plans and encouragcharities to respond in kind. Be responsive and sensitive in your communications with grantees. 
  • Ask for feedback and act on it. Seek feedback via third parties, act on it, tell grantees about changes you are making and why, and compensate grantees for time spent giving their thoughts and ideas. 
  • Offer (optional) support beyond money. Listen to grantees about their needs and respond with non-financial help where possible. Act as a champion for your grantees by helping them to showcase their work, network and raise their profile. 

Where things can go wrong

These principles offer a roadmap for a different kind of grantmaking. But the model has shortcomings. It can be a short journey from ‘trust those you give to’ towards ‘give only to those you trust’: there can be a fine line between trust and bias. 

We tend to trust faster and deeper if the following are present:   

  • Things in common.  
  • People saying things we agree with or enjoy hearing.
  • Someone is part of our network. 
Building relationships quickly and making rapid decisions on grants can be useful for emergencies. But if you fail to identify and challenge inherent trust biases then you risk missing out on opportunities to fund great charities outside… Click To Tweet

Tackling trust bias

The Trust-based Philanthropy Project are aware of this risk and have proposed mitigations. They advocate being guided by your values and sticking to mission-focused decision making. They also suggest that referral, vetting, and decision-making processes be managed by people with diverse perspectives to ensure greatest exposure to new potential grantees. 

Alongside this, we suggest you ask yourself: why don’t I feel comfortable funding this new/different organisation? What is holding me back? What do I need to overcome my concerns? Am I the right person to be making this decision? What is the most impactful gift I can give? What does the charity need to really tackle the issues they are working on? 

Secondlybe more awake to your grant pipeline: who is applying, and who isn’t applying? The empty spaces can be as instructive as the busy spaces. Are there are any organisations you wish to reach (such as black and minority ethnic community organisations) that you aren’t reaching? Why? Do your grant-making processes not lend themselves to small organisations? Are target communities aware of opportunities for grants 

As with many principles-based approaches, its simplicity is both its appeal and its weakness. However, as UK grant-making considers how to build better practices following the Covid crisis, trust-based philanthropy contains much that could move us in the right direction.

We’d love to know what you think in response to these questions, comment below with your thoughts, ideas and what else we should be asking…


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