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Commentary: Resolving Power Imbalances Via Trust-Based Philanthropy

To paraphrase a line from Iñigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that phrase (trust-based philanthropy). I do not think it means what you think it means.”

For better or for worse, trust-based philanthropy is most often associated with:

  1. Mitigating power dynamics via authentic funder-grantee relationships;
  2. Multi-year, unrestricted funding; and,
  3. Simplifying and de-bureaucratizing grantmaking.

While all of these are worthy and necessary, my hope is that in the future, trust-based philanthropy helps bring about deeper institutional/structural change and is a useful addition to the many efforts that intend to bring us closer to a more just, equitable, and democratic society.

As the interwoven pandemics of COVID-19, climate, economic disparity, and fragility of our democracy hang in the balance, the philanthropic sector is giving altogether too much lip service to matters of equity and justice without drastic structural change. For example, it appears that foundation assets actually ballooned during the pandemic. But, there hasn’t been a wholesale shift towards giving well above the 5% minimum. Similarly, there is a fundamental mismatch between rhetoric and investment toward racial equity and racial justice that demonstrates a sector-sized gap between the talk and the walk.

Trust-based philanthropy, at its core, aims to go well beyond a few token measures. It is about embodying and living the values to which we commit, and being accountable to the communities we purport to uplift. We recently realized that the six grantmaking practices that we initially offered to the sector are nearly impossible to make real without trust-based (just, equitable) culture, structures, and leadership to scaffold them.

Executing a couple of multi-year grants via a process that is onerous and extractive builds little long-term trust or accountability. Giving organizations a one-off, “COVID year” of simplified applications and reporting, then reverting back before the pandemic is even close to resolved (in fact, gets more critical and complicated) might actually reverse any trust that was built.

Labeling policies “trust-based” without any feedback from those who are impacted by the policy is just an exercise in who has the power to name things. Watching endowments grow at the pace of the ever-widening economic disparities in this country without restructuring both how we invest within our portfolios and increasing spend rates far beyond the federally mandated minimum is out of touch at best, and viciously irresponsible at worst.

That said, there are, of course, examples of deeply engaged trust-based philanthropy to look to for inspiration and concrete action. Headwaters Foundation in Montana held a participatory grant-making process where nonprofits across the state (not the foundation itself) unanimously voted for the nonprofits that would receive its largest grants. The Kataly Foundation has doubled down on democratizing philanthropy in multiple ways — how leaders invest within its portfolio (with regenerative partners like Buen Vivir Fund), committing to higher payouts, and demonstrating their accountability to black, brown, and indigenous peoples. The Compton Foundation recently determined that the best response to the troubles of our time is to spend out the endowment. 

At The Whitman Institute, our final grant is in the spirit of reparation, however late, to a local land trust — acknowledging that the endowment was built on railroad construction profits which originated with land theft and extractive labor.

No institution, including my own, gets a gold star in any of this. Let’s face it – philanthropy can seem like a feel-good sibling to mind-boggling inequality. Given that, it’s imperative that we find ways to democratize philanthropy, to make meaningful culture and structural shifts, to walk the talk of what we say we value, and to redistribute resources that enable community self-determination and dignity.

For better or for worse, I hope that that in the future of trust-based philanthropy contributes to the following:

  1. Foundations embody equity and justice values-driven culture, structures, leadership and grantmaking practice. The sector gets beyond lip service and collectively takes uprooting, imaginative action on what it really means to walk the talk. Do our investments mirror our principles when it comes to grantmaking? Do we make meaningful changes after the 17th time we’ve gotten the same feedback? Do our board and executive rooms bring non-traditional leaders and experience to the center? Do our work cultures expect super heroism, extracting the life force of our team instead of valuing them fully with adequate salaries, benefits, and PTO? For more concrete examples from around the way, check out the Trust-Based Philanthropy in 4D resource at https://bit.ly/3GwWS8u.
  2. The six grantmaking practices are, well, the norm. Giving multi-year, unrestricted support, doing the homework, simplifying and streamline paperwork, being transparent and responsive, soliciting and acting on feedback, and support beyond the check are simply par for the course and the way we do business. These practices flourish in ecosystems of trust, equity and justice.
  3. Social movements win and nonprofits are healthy vehicles for transformative change. This will happen because leaders and organizations are freed up from the dog and pony show. Funders are supportive players in transformative change work, partnering in both a spirit of service and a spirit of learning. Organizations are funded at full cost. The myriad efforts to transform philanthropy into a more accountable sector that seeks actively to redistribute (tax-withheld) funds back into communities are successful. Trust-based philanthropy is a collaborator in creating the conditions for such transformative shifts to take place.

The last thing that I fervently hope is associated with trust-based philanthropy and any legacy it might leave is this … joy. So much of the critically needed change in our world is serious business. And there is space, invitation, need — for joy. At least for me, I can testify: There is joy in redistributing resources. There is joy in offering reparation. There is joy in being imperfect while in motion towards justice. 

There is joy in the mess, the learning, the relationships. There is joy in seeing power get built collectively even as we give up individual power. 

I hope, for all of us, there is joy. I leave you with these last words from Miracle Max in The Princess Bride: “Have fun stormin’ the castle!”

*****

Pia Infante is chair of the board of the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project steering committee and co-executive director, The Whitman Institute in San Francisco, Calif.

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