Putting Trust at the Center of Foundation Work

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s blog: http://cep.org/putting-trust-center-foundation-work.

As a foundation that sees relationships as a key component of philanthropy and social change, The Whitman Institute (TWI) applauds CEP’s recent report, Relationships Matter: Program Officers, Grantees, and the Keys to Success. It may seem like common sense that grantees and funders alike see better outcomes as a result of program officers prioritizing relationships, but putting that value into practice clearly remains challenging for many within philanthropy.

There are numerous reasons why this is so, among them power dynamics, time constraints, and perhaps a sense that getting “too close” to a grantee may compromise a funder’s sense of objectivity or make it hard to discontinue funding. On top of that, foundation structures and cultures themselves can steer staff away from building good relationships.

It’s that last point that I want to explore here. According to a survey of 150 program officers that CEP conducted for an earlier study benchmarking program officer roles and responsibilities, program officers often feel unsupported by foundation leadership to build relationships with grantees. And, as Relationships Matter concludes, “Program staff do not work in a vacuum — they work within an organizational culture and structure. So, there are implications in our analysis for foundation leadership, too, as they consider how they best set up program officers for success in the important work of strengthening relationships with the nonprofits on the front lines.”

Trust-Based Philanthropy

The Whitman Institute’s experience may be instructive for foundation leadership open to exploring CEP’s invitation to rethink how their practices position their program staff for success.

In 2013, TWI worked with CEP to gather feedback from our grantees through a Grantee Perception Report (GPR). We were gratified to learn in our results that we were “rated more positively than nearly every other funder in CEP’s comparative dataset for the strength of its relationships with grantees.” CEP also highlighted a theme that was present in many grantees’ comments: namely, how important it was that grantees felt trusted by us. Our grantees also urged us to share our grantmaking practices more broadly within philanthropy.

That feedback led us to name and frame our approach as “Trust-Based Philanthropy.” We hold the name lightly since we recognize that many other funders employ similar practices but may not use that term, but we have found it a useful way to connect with other funders interested in our approach — and/or those who also want to advocate for practices such as multiyear unrestricted funding, streamlined paperwork, and support “beyond the check.”

For some in the field, perhaps, these structural practices can seem like “old news.” But we can’t talk about them enough given that, writ-large, philanthropy remains stubbornly resistant to their implementation — despite continuing calls for change. That is why TWI remains committed to sharing what we’ve learned: that these practices help build stronger relationships; healthier, more effective organizations; and, if implemented widely, hold the potential to transform our sector.

When we provide unrestricted support, we find that we start our relationships with grantees from a place of trust, rather than implicit distrust. And when that happens, something shifts in the power dynamic. The imbalance doesn’t completely go away, but it is mitigated and a different kind of conversation begins. Multiyear support encourages people to really talk openly about what’s going on in their work without fear that they may be penalized in the form of funding not renewed.

Streamlined paperwork frees up both precious time for grantees to do their real work, and it also frees up time for foundation staff working with grantees to provide support beyond the check in ways that are genuinely helpful. This, too, helps strengthen relationships, as interactions with grantees are less about slogging through requirements and box ticking, and more about the mission-driven work and how it can best be supported.

Based on our experience, how we do our grantmaking is fundamental to building trusting relationships — relationships that not only lead to better outcomes for all, but that also embody the values that ground TWI’s work, such as equity, humility, dialogue, and critical thinking.

Prioritizing Relationships

A larger implication of CEP’s report might be for how foundation leaders think about relationships beyond just those between program officers and grantees. What if foundations were to prioritize building trusting relationships at all levels of the organization, both internally and externally? It’s a question TWI continues to explore as we approach our sunset date in 2022.

How do we best support grantees to build trusting relationships with those they serve and collaborate with? How do we build trust with other funders so that we might have more collective vetting that makes streamlined reporting the norm rather than the exception? How do we build trust between trustees and staff so that they are aligned on both the what and how of the foundation’s grantmaking? And how do we build this trust so that it’s not just between individuals, but between organizations and institutions?

The answers to these questions lie in both individual and structural responses.

CEP notes in the report that program officers don’t work in a vacuum. Neither do foundations; the questions funders wrestle with in terms of individual and structural change are the same ones going on all around us. In a time of massive distrust at all levels of our society, it’s worth exploring if there is an opportunity for philanthropy to model trust in ways that can help move the country forward collectively. I think there is, but only if we prioritize building relationships that embody the values we aspire to.

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