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Sep 20, 2022

Fundraisers for Trust-Based Philanthropy: How Grantees Can Help Transform the Philanthropic Sector

by Robyn Windham, Communications Manager – Headwaters Foundation

Before joining the Headwaters Foundation team and entering the world of philanthropy, I spent ten years as a fundraiser for various organizations. I recently received a phone call from a development professional who read my blog, Trust-Based Philanthropy: A Love Letter from a Former Fundraiser. She asked: how can grantees help move their funders to be more trust-based? I loved this query, and it prompted me to write this post. 

Trust-Based Philanthropy is an alternative way of doing philanthropy that seeks to ‘advance equity, shift power and build mutually accountable relationships through a values-driven approach.’ It does this through building relationships, open communication, simplifying the application and reporting process, providing stable, multi-year funding, and much more. 

As the ‘interpreters’ between foundations and nonprofits, fundraisers are in a unique position to help flip the traditional philanthropy script toward more equitable practices. This could understandably feel risky or nerve-wracking. As a development professional, you face a great deal of pressure. It may be difficult to imagine ‘pushing back’ on funders, whose support is needed for your organization to do its important work. But (and never forget) – you are powerful and influential and your voice matters! Below are some suggestions for ways to help spark a more trust-based approach amongst your funders: 

  • Share resources on Trust-Based Philanthropy on your social media channels – your funders and donors are likely following you! Check out Trust Based Philanthropy Project and follow them on Twitter and/or Linkedin for some great content to share. If you have funders who are practicing Trust-Based Philanthropy, consider shouting out to them and sharing how their approach helps your organization. 
  • Give bold and honest feedback to funders. Soliciting and acting on the feedback of grantees is a key component of TBP. Of course, giving feedback is easiest when prompted, and especially when that feedback is anonymous. More foundations are soliciting feedback through such tools as the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Grantee Perception Report. You can also use Grant Advisor to submit an unsolicited review. Whenever you have an opportunity, share with funders how their approach and processes help or hinder you. 
  • Track the time you spend. Trust-based funders simplify their application and reporting processes. Some foundations have begun asking how long their applications and reports take you – regardless, track that time and don’t forget to include every hour it took you to secure the funding – from getting a meeting, writing a letter of inquiry, to applying, creating budgets, financial and narrative reports. Did you spend a lot of time on a process and end up not receiving funding? If you can, share that with the funder (see above). 
  • Ask for multi-year, general operating funding and explain how it would help you. Funders who practice TBP prioritize offering funding that is flexible and long-term. Even if it doesn’t seem to be on the table, it’s worth asking and expressing what the impact would be. If you knew you’d receive this funding annually for 3+ years, what would that give your organization the confidence to do? Hire staff, launch a new initiative? If you didn’t have to ensure the grant was spent on a specific purpose or program, could you be more agile?  
  • Expect relationships. In TBP, foundation staff value building relationships with their grantee partners. Some foundations are difficult to reach, and not all will be open to personal communication. But if you have capacity to reach out, don’t shy away from trying to connect with your funders – they may be willing and able to reciprocate. Having a relationship with your funder helps you know where they stand and helps them understand your work and challenges. Expecting relationships and doing your best to cultivate them will help make trust the norm.  
  • Ask questions and suggest alternatives. Ask foundations why their processes are the way they are. Is there something that is especially time-consuming for you, such as tracking specific metrics for one grant, or submitting a lengthy mid-year and end-of-year report for another? Ask how they are going to use these pieces. Suggest that you share impact stories instead of numbers or have a conversation instead of submitting a written report. It could be that this is just the way they have always done things, and they haven’t stopped to evaluate how it impacts their grantees. Your questions and suggestions might prompt them to do so. 
  • Help foundation staff approach their Board. Foundation leaders always have their Board of Directors in mind, and it may be challenging for them to start the Trust-Based Philanthropy conversation. Employing many of these tips – giving feedback, tracking time, asking questions and suggesting alternatives – will help give Foundation staff information to show their Board to illustrate why their approach to philanthropy matters. 

How do you feel about these tips? Are they realistic, and could you see yourself using them? Do you have other ideas of how fundraisers can amplify Trust-Based Philanthropy? Reach out to me at [email protected].