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Sep 24, 2019

True Philanthropy is More than Money Delivered Fast

Jeff Bezos recently made heads turn in the philanthropic sector, when a story came out about his Day One Fund, which allegedly “lets his charities do whatever they want.”  Apparently the founder of Amazon and current richest man in the world tasked an advisory board of experts with cold calling well-regarded organizations working on homelessness to ask them, in about 500 words, how they would spend a substantial donation from the foundation. Within six weeks, Bezos granted nearly $100 Million to 24 nonprofits across the country working to reduce homelessness, with very few strings attached.

Since the article came out, Bezos has come under fire for granting the money with no restrictions, no formal vetting and, with what seems very little oversight. These criticisms seem rooted in a mistrust of nonprofits and their ability to monitor and manage their funds. I tend to think most nonprofits are worthy of much more trust than is often granted to them – and my concerns with Bezos’ approach actually lie elsewhere.

I applaud Bezos for cutting the red tape and quickly getting money where it’s most needed; but what appears to be missing from his approach is a commitment to power sharing and collaboration with an emphasis on relationships. Without these two components, this type of funding approach runs the risk of being as challenging as some of the traditional philanthropic models it attempts to combat. 

Headwaters practices trust-based philanthropy, an approach that attempts to redefine the power dynamic between funders and grantees. Quiet conversations about how traditional philanthropy could reduce the barriers of its own making have been circling for years. Streamlined applications. Transparency. Multi-year, unrestricted funding. Grantees have been asking for these things, and some foundations have attempted to shift their grantmaking as a nod to these requests but, for a number of reasons, few have been able to fully adopt this approach. 

Headwaters, like Bezos, wants to reduce the burden on grantees that often comes with cumbersome applications and reports. We want to quickly get funding to those who need it. But we also want to build lasting relationships with the nonprofits we fund so that, together, we can move forward the vital work that brings about transformational change.

When Headwaters was just getting started, I drove across western Montana and had at least 600 cups of coffee with everyday Montanans. I heard from people across our fifteen-county region that they needed quick, unrestricted funding. From these conversations, we created GO! Grants, a grant program aimed at providing quick turnaround, general operating grants to our most rural communities. We asked. People told us what they thought. We created a grant program around what we heard. And in doing so we built a foundation for trust.

This summer we visited all of our 2018 GO! Grantees and we asked them, again, what they thought. They told us they were grateful for the grants. They also told us they appreciated the visit because it gave them a chance to build a relationship with the foundation. It’s rare, they said.  

If I were to meet Jeff Bezos I’d tell him that he’s off to a great start. But I’d also tell him that philanthropy that creates lasting change is about more than just money delivered quickly. I’d tell him to build deeper relationships with his grantees instead of top-down cold calling because it will lead to greater trust. And, ultimately, it’s all about trust.

Learn more about trust-based philanthropy and Headwaters’ collaboration with other trust-based foundations at