Finding Power in Practice

May 14, 2018 //
Note: This post originally appeared on Medium, as part of Justice Funders‘ “Liberate Philanthropy” Blog Series. You can read the original post here

The foundation world is plagued with a number of inherent challenges that inhibit our ability to do our best work: our own hubris, our lack of proximity to the people we support, the structures that perpetuate the very inequity we intend to address. As funders committed to social justice and equity, these issues may feel insurmountable and out of our control, but we must remember that we do have control over how we practice as funders.

At The Whitman Institute (TWI), we’ve found power in how we approach our relationships with grantees. For us, a deliberate, trust-based approach is an important component of liberating foundations from the structures that hold too many of us back.

Too often, as Vu Le points out, philanthropy is set up like the Hunger Games — with an uneven playing field of organizations fighting against each other to win any substantial funding. But instead of the Hollywood version where the winners are the underdogs, the winners in the nonprofit world are often those with bigger budgets, development staff, and that have already been vetted by other foundations.

However, a trust-based approach to philanthropy acknowledges grantees as true partners — not as supplicants that have to compete to prove their worth.

If funder-grantee relationships were like dating, TWI strives to be a good date; and, to put it bluntly, we try not to be a jerk. In practice, this means we must be clear with ourselves about who we are looking to partner with and we strive not to waste anyone’s time in a protracted process.

For example, when a number of nonprofit leaders and colleagues recommended we meet with the Seattle-based leadership development organization Rainer Valley Corps (RVS), we started out by doing our homework. As we do with any prospective grantee, we took the time to review all the available background — websites, publications, testimonials from partner organizations — to better understand RVC’s purpose, strategies, programs, leadership, and financial standing.

Once we had a foundational understanding of the organization, we met with RVC Executive Director Vu Le a number of times. We listened, shared our aspirations, asked each other big questions, and, ultimately, we experienced a deeper alignment of values and purpose. By this I mean we experienced Vu embodying TWI’s core values. This was the relational, experiential additive to our pre-meeting homework that concretized an initial sense of good fit into a formal partnership. And since we did our homework upfront, this also meant that Vu wasn’t expected to “compete” against fellow nonprofit leaders to persuade us that RVC’s approach was most aligned with TWI’s. This made for a more honest and transparent conversation that helped create the foundation for the relationship of learning and trust that we enjoy with Vu today. And because we invested that time in the front-end to build a solid relationship, we don’t ask for formal reports or proposals, but rather use our ongoing conversations with Vu as a gauge of how they’re advancing their work. We truly see Vu as a partner in the work, especially as he continues to challenge the old paradigms of the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, both in his work and on his blog.

At TWI, we continue to explore ways that trust-based philanthropy expands our bandwidth for listening, inquiry, complexity thinking, and collaboration.

These kinds of critical thinking capacities are undervalued in a Hunger Games model of philanthropy. Yet, listening and inquiry are necessary to practice a philanthropy that is proximate to the problems it aspires to solve.

What if funders spent more time in conversation and partnership with grantees? What if we worked hand-in-hand with those partners to examine together the complexity of the problems our funding is intended to address? What if we challenged the assumption that financial contributions alone will solve societal problems?

These perilous times call for emergent, complex thinking which we believe is better cultivated in the context of long-term relationships and long-term grantmaking than in single-year, silver bullet grants. So, rather than just seeing funder-grantee relationships in a dating frame, we call on our colleagues to liberate philanthropy by investing in long-term, committed relationships that will fuel the deep, transformative changes our communities need.