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Trust-Based Philanthropy: A Love Letter (from a Former Fundraiser)

Robyn Windham

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When I started at Headwaters Foundation last fall, I was coming from ten years as a fundraising professional, and Headwaters’ brand of Trust-Based Philanthropy (TBP) made my heart skip a beat. TBP is a different (and wonderful) way of doing philanthropy that seeks to ‘advance equity, shift power and build mutually accountable relationships.’ It does this through open communication, by simplifying the application and reporting process, providing stable, multi-year funding, and much more. Here are some key things that appeal to me as a former fundraising professional about Trust-Based Philanthropy: 

  • It’s relationship-based. Often as a fundraiser, foundation staff seem mysterious, intimidating, and impossible to reach. In fact, some foundations prohibit contact from prospective grantees. Their website might state that they don’t have capacity for meetings and don’t accept unsolicited proposals, or they offer a complicated application process which fundraisers must undertake if they hope for funding, without ever having a conversation with a trustee or Program Officer. Not so with TBP, which thrives on relationships and ongoing conversations. This levels the playing field and helps foundation and nonprofit staff understand each other and work together. It also helps fundraisers know where they stand, giving organizations more stability. They will know quickly whether they are eligible for funding, are more likely to have a commitment of multi-year funding, and they can communicate easily with their funder about emerging needs or changes to the work. 
  • It values experiences and stories over numbers and metrics. Since relationships are brought front and center with TBP, so are people’s lived experiences and stories. Instead of requiring fundraisers to collect numbers and submit lengthy reports to illustrate their impact, foundation staff will often visit their grantees and meet and have conversations with staff and stakeholders to see first-hand the impact an organization is having on its community. This upholds the humanity of people who are accessing the critical services provided by non-profits, rather than reducing them to numbers, and eliminates the need for complicated reporting. 
  • It’s less work for fundraisers and nonprofits. Every fundraiser knows the feeling of spending hours on a proposal and then sending it into the abyss of the internet or mail and crossing their fingers (for months) that this investment of time will be worthwhile. Or, of writing and submitting a lengthy grant report and receiving no response (is someone reading these?). These scenarios will not happen with TBP, which eliminates the mountain of paperwork that weighs on both nonprofit and foundation staff, favoring ongoing conversations. These conversations take the burden of educating foundations off nonprofit workers, as foundation staff invest time in understanding the issue areas and work of their grantees. 
  • It increases organizations’ capacity. Because TBP focuses on relationships, conversations and stories, requires less paperwork and provides unrestricted multi-year support, it increases the capacity of the organizations it seeks to help. Instead of spending countless hours identifying new funding each year and submitting lengthy proposals and reports, nonprofit workers can spend more time in service to their mission, and less time raising funds. Trust-based Philanthropy also stresses support beyond the check, and ongoing conversations help foundation staff understand the emerging needs of grantees and identify additional ways that they can help – through training, networking, or donated event space, for example. 
  • It is less transactional and more equitable. Together, these points amount to Trust-Based Philanthropy being more equitable – it’s a model that trusts community members and their organizations as the experts on the issues they are facing and honors them as leaders in crafting solutions. This redistributes power between funders and grantees and addresses the way that the philanthropy sector has historically contributed to inequity – this is powerful, especially as institutions that accumulate and disseminate wealth in a country grappling with systemic income inequality, racism and sexism.  

If you would like to learn more about Trust-Based Philanthropy and how it’s changing the field and supporting nonprofits, check out the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project or listen to this podcast with Headwaters Foundation’s CEO (and founding member of Trust-Based Philanthropy Project) Brenda Solorzano.