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May 4, 2021

Exploring Trust-Based Philanthropy

Since our founding, Headwaters has been committed to being a trust-based funder and reimagining power dynamics in philanthropy. The concept of “trust-based philanthropy” (TBP) involves new ways of funding, different ways of viewing funder-grantee relationships, and funders up some control and power. This is a big shift in traditional practices in philanthropy and involves a learning curve for all involved (including our staff, board, grantees, and others). In recognition of this, we wanted to share some more information about what TBP is (and isn’t) and open up a conversation with all of you. 

Thanks for all you do and for learning with us. 

Be well,
The Headwaters Team 

Some TBP Basics with Headwaters CEO, Brenda Solorzano 

What is Trust Based Philanthropy and why does this approach matter?

While trust-based philanthropy advocates for a concrete set of practices, the holistic practice requires much more. At its core, TBP begins with understanding that foundations inherently have a certain amount of power over grantees and nonprofits. This power dynamic and philanthropic norms have shaped, informed, and influenced our entire sector—including who is deemed “worthy” of the resources we have the privilege to steward.  Being a trust-based funder requires being aware of this power dynamic and working to lessen it so that nonprofits are able to focus on their mission critical work. Values that drive trust-based philanthropy include:

  • Starting from a place of trust rather than suspicion of nonprofits, and being comfortable with risk-taking and knowing that not everything funded will work
  • Prioritizing healthy, open, honest relationships needed to navigate the complexity of the work and our world
  • Collaborating with humility and curiosity because no one person or entity has all the answers
  • Sharing power and decision making with grantee partners and communities who are closer to the issues we seek to address

The actual grantmaking practices include things like providing multi-year general operating support, eliminating bureaucratic application processes, reducing the burden on grantees by having foundation staff do the work to secure a grant, providing support beyond financial resources, listening and responding to grantee feedback and being transparent in sharing what we fund and why.

This approach matters because it shifts foundations from being gatekeepers to being supporters of those they fund doing critical work in their communities. It allows nonprofits to focus on their work rather than spending valuable resources chasing dollars. And finally, it empowers the people on the ground, people who often lack a voice or a role in the grantmaking processes of foundations.

What are some myths or misconceptions you think people have about TBP?

Two common misconceptions are that trust-based funders don’t care about or focus on impact and that grantees get to make all the decisions without consideration of any other factors. Being a trust-based funder requires a funder to be clear about what they support, why, and what impact is desired. Once this work is done, the next step is to find mission-aligned partners already doing the work and provide them with resources. Together, the trust-based funder and grantee work to collect information about impact, what’s working and what changes are needed. This shared learning approach allows funders and grantees to work together in defining, measuring and telling the story of impact.

Trust-based foundations don’t write a check and walk away leaving the grantee to do whatever they want. Trust-based funders stay in relationship with grantees to learn about the work, help provide other types of assistance and together, determine changes that are needed to achieve the desired impact. This close relationship allows for greater transparency and communication about challenges and opportunities.

What is something you want people to know about TBP?

Trust-based philanthropy is much harder than most people realize. Because it’s rooted in building relationships, when things go wrong it feels like trust is being broken. Since we are human, we will undoubtedly find ourselves with broken trust at some point. A good trust-based funder will have built the type of relationship that allows for candid conversation when trouble arises and joint celebration when there are successes. The relationship building takes time and trust building needs to go both ways. While this is hard work, when it does happen, the impact can be tremendous.

An interview with one of our grantee partners

Common Good Missoula 

Our partner spotlight is Casey Dunning of Common Good Missoula. We spoke with Casey to learn more about the work of Common Good Missoula and how the collaborative has evolved.  

Tell us about how Common Good Missoula started and how the work is different from things you’ve been part of in the past?

The base assumption that we work off of at Common Good is that everyday people are experiencing very real systemic pressures. We are not going to be able to change those systemic issues until everyday people come together in very large numbers. We will need thousands to come together in Missoula to shift those big systemic things. The 35 organizations that make up Common Good Missoula, it’s about the people they are connected to since they are made of citizen leaders. The organizations are the hub and the community that can reach out to local citizens to bring them in and train them as leaders and then create the infrastructure to act in powerful ways.

We do work on social determinants of health and the structural determinants of health. Social determinants of health being all of the basic resources in our community that create health and well-being: good housing, food and work. Most organizations and non-profit services are built to be able to address clients’ specific needs like give food, give shelter, or to create better social determinants of health like creating more housing. We do not have, or have not historically had, any mechanism to legitimately change the structural determinants of health, which are the inherit structural inequities that are caused by things like stereotypes that play into discrimination, which can be created into laws. Racism, ableism, all the different structural determinants that create the reality that some people are more valued than others, meaning some people have more access to things like housing than others. What’s different about Common Good is that it’s about everyday people come together in large numbers to be able to change the structural determinants of health. We’ve never had that kind of power-building mechanism. 

What have been some of the biggest lessons working with TBP? How has TBP played a role within your work?

Power is just everyday people’s ability to act and make changes on the things that make their life hard. The basis of power, in a democratic society, is organized people and it’s organized money. Trust based philanthropy, and specifically related to Headwaters, is absolutely foundational. Organized people, especially in our times of disconnectedness and divisiveness, and bad politics, it doesn’t just create itself, it takes people to organize. To have a funder that is willing to step in to work on systemic and structural change, which can cause tension in the community, is absolutely a game changer. Most of philanthropy is not willing to create that kind of tension. 

Another piece of TBP is that Headwaters knows that people doing the work need to be spending the most possible time simply doing the work that needs to get done. We have our own interest in doing our work exceedingly well, so we don’t need someone else (other funders) holding us accountable for doing it. We want to do it anyway! 

Here’s a quick story: I came into a few meetings with Headwaters staff. After the second meeting of talking about Common Good’s impact and goals, one of the staff members was taking notes and at the end, relayed back, ‘so you need this, this, this, and this to do the program?’ I confirmed and said, ‘so how should I start this grant application?’. The staff member replied, ‘We just did it.’ All I could think of is what? It’s that easy? I thought this embodied what trust based philanthropy is and what it does. 

Community organizing is a very complex thing and we have been living in a complex time to do community organizing work. The reality is that we are trying to develop leaders and have this structural impact and then COVID comes and throws everything out the window. Headwaters was able to come in and be understanding. That is a big deal to have that trust and understanding. 

What is something you want people to know about the communities you work with?
The same racial divides, class divides, and political divides are present in Missoula, just like they are everywhere else. Within a certain culture and community of Missoula middle class, upper middle class, there is this experience in Missoula that is quite a homogenous experience, like what a great place this is, what a beautiful place this is, what a great place this is to raise family. Outside of the shared and homogenous culture, there is a tremendous amount of lower income people who are not able to live here and who are not having the same experience in Missoula. In my understanding, the Indigenous folks who were living here before in the Missoula Valley, while they’ve had this amazing, gracious commitment to being very open and peaceful for decades. The impact of their removal from this Valley, it still affects families. There is so much work to do here. It’s wild the different experiences of Missoula and the different perceptions of Missoula.  

What makes you hopeful?
So often in community organizing, the first impression sometimes is that everyone is so busy. How can you get hundreds of people to move together? What gives me hope is that if I do 15-20 relational meetings in a week, out of 15 different people that I connect with, I experience relationship building. They start to envision what we can do together as citizens. Out of 15 people, 10 people want to make a real change for the community in their daily life. I find hope in sitting down with community members and being able to connect with them.

The Whitman Institute

John Esterle is Co-Executive Director at the Whitman Institute and a leader in the field of TBP. Headwaters staff and board spoke with John to learn more about TBP and some of the opportunities and challenges that come with this approach to philanthropy. John shared some powerful ideas with us, noting that, “In democratizing philanthropy, we are strengthening our democracy.” To hear more from our conversation with John you can watch the video here: 

Further readings on TBP

In an effort to share some of the things we’ve learned (and are learning) about TBP, we wanted to share some resources about what TBP is and isn’t and how TBP impacts different communities. The following is a small selection of resources we’ve found helpful.