There’s a reckoning underway in the philanthropic sector, from hard-hitting books and journalism challenging the power of the wealthy, to concerns over how philanthropy is serving threatened communities in a regressive political moment.

While there have been some encouraging responses, so far, this reckoning has largely been a matter of discourse. In other words, a lot of talk, not a lot of action.

One progressive funder, the San Francisco-based Whitman Institute, has been operating since around 2004 in a way that seeks to curb some of the power imbalances currently under fire. Now Whitman and peer funders who subscribe to similar grantmaking practices are taking their approach to philanthropy on the road.

The coalition recently launched the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, a five-year, peer-to-peer effort offering some tangible steps and case studies to foundations seeking to change their ways, often in the face of stinging critiques and realizations.

“This is a concrete response to the really powerful, but sometimes, very generalized critiques about how funders hold power,” says Pia Infante, co-executive director of the Whitman Institute. “These are really concrete offerings around practice and an invitation to take these principles and adapt them or integrate them into what you do.”

Well aware of the many philanthropic reform efforts out there, the initiative aims not to compete with them, but rather to build on them by demonstrating how certain shifts in practice have been effective and rewarding for peer foundations. Some of the framework’s six main principles are multiyear, unrestricted funding, streamlined applications and reports, and greater transparency and responsiveness to grantees. But they’re all in the service of building deeper, more trusting relationships between funders and the communities they support.

There have been calls for this kind of change for decades now, and frankly, it’s hard to imagine some funders voluntarily giving up control in these ways. But Trust-Based Philanthropy is humbly extending a hand to the thousands of funders finding their way out there, many of which are looking for ways to do better by the people they serve. And while realistic about their expectations, organizers are hoping these adjustments to practice will get foundations to rethink their roles in society.

“Whatever folks can grasp as a ladder or a step into change—for themselves individually as practitioners, change for their institutions—and toward a transformation of our sector, I think that’s great,” Infante says.

Wake-Up Call

Trust-based philanthropy as an explicit framework first started to take shape in 2011, when the Whitman Institute’s board first made the decision to spend down its $15 million endowment, now planning to sunset in 2022.

Since Whitman became a grantmaking foundation in 2004, it had prioritized things like multiyear funding and building trust and relationships with grantees. But in 2013, the funder commissioned the Center for Effective Philanthropy to conduct one of its grantee perception reports, with an added question regarding what they should prioritize as they spend down. What they heard back was a lot of positive feedback about overall foundation operations.

“They said that [our approach] felt sort of distinctive, that the way we are in relationship in general was in the spirit of service, that we were not one of the foundations that was constantly trying to direct and control strategy,” Infante says.

The team later analyzed the feedback and sifted out six main principles of what would become Trust-Based Philanthropy.

“The entire framework, and even the concept of trust, came directly from our partners. And then even the idea that we should go out and be advocates and think of ourselves as influencers was also something that they really pushed us on,” Infante says.

Other tenets include doing your homework to reduce the burden on grantees, soliciting and acting on feedback, and offering support beyond the monetary grant. These components may sound basic, but are clearly a stretch for many foundations. While nonprofits and critics alike have long called for foundations to unshackle grantees by giving far greater general operating support, some 80% of grants are still restricted project funding.

The foundation came around to the idea that as it spends down, how it gives could be just as much a part of its legacy as how much it gives. In 2014, Infante joined John Esterle as co-executive director to make the case for the way they operate within philanthropy.

Meanwhile, as Trust-Based Philanthropy coalesced, calls for sector reform have only intensified, including a series of books highly critical of the influence wielded by philanthropy (and the launch of sites like this one, of course). Foundations and consultants alike have been kicking around ways to respond to the backlash, and major funders have taken steps toward greater responsiveness to the needs of nonprofits, including rapid response giving and greater support for overhead. Bold ideas like participatory grantmaking, which involves handing over decision-making power directly to the people foundations serve, are also drawing more attention.

Infante attributes some of this demand and desire for change to the election of Donald Trump, which served as a wake-up call that rattled the sector.

“A lot of folks were pretty gripped by fear for our democracy, concern for the different communities that the administration articulated it was going after, concern for deregulatory efforts,” she says. “That then ripples into donors and funders asking ourselves, ‘Whoa, what are we up to? What are we doing?’ Not just in what we fund, but really how we’re looking at power.”

Practical Steps 

Infante and Whitman were hesitant to make a formal initiative out of the concept, careful to acknowledge and respect existing efforts such as EDGE Funders Alliance or Grantee-Centric Philanthropy. Over a series of discussions with other grantmakers supportive of the concept, an emerging coalition decided in 2019 to create a five-year effort.

They intentionally decided against establishing a new affinity group or consultancy, but the initiative does have $1.65 million in funding from participating foundations—the Whitman Institute ($750,000), Satterberg ($500,000), Robert Sterling Clark ($250,000) and Headwaters foundations ($125,000), and additional support from Durfee and General Service foundations.

The project hopes to offer a resource that essentially any funder, regardless of interest area, could take up, and the framework is meant to complement other reform strategies out there. Activities involve a combination of speaking engagements, gatherings, media, all the way up to free curricula for foundations, such as a year-long curriculum in the works for members of Philanthropy Northwest.

In fact, a big part of the strategy involves coordinating with those regional funder associations, says Trust-Based Philanthropy Project Director Shaady Salehi. The project has programming planned with 15 such organizations so far.

“They see Trust-Based Philanthropy as offering some practical steps to address those issues that are really at the forefront of people’s minds right now in the sector,” Salehi says.

They’re also partnering with other national groups like NCRP and the National Council on Family Philanthropy, and drawing strong interest in particular from family foundations, community foundations and intermediaries.

Thoughtful Reorientation

Given that funders have been slow to adopt some of these tactics and that critics are calling for tougher regulations, a voluntary program like Trust-Based Philanthropy certainly has its work cut out for it. How might this have an impact?

For one, it does at least seem as if there’s a growing openness to change, and you can imagine a lot of small or medium-sized foundations out there are looking for guidance. “There is more readiness, there is more willingness to think about doing things a little differently from the status quo. I think that is a great opening for people to come together,” Salehi says.

Infante emphasizes that there’s plenty of room for different approaches to reform, but institutions can start where they are. “The ecosystem of relationships that we have tangible presence and control in are the ones that I think we’re trying to get at.”

As a peer-led effort, advocates aim to lead by example, demonstrating that these practices are beneficial, not just to grantees, but to foundations and the results they are trying to achieve. In one case study, for example, the Claneil Foundation outlined how shifting to multiyear, unrestricted grants has been “transformational.” Program staff are able to go much deeper with grantees, getting more honest input and learning more about how grantees make an impact. The study also describes how it’s eased the team’s workload, allowing them to “breathe a little easier.”

The project is also meant to be an ongoing learning experience, even for the creators, who hope to keep refining and improving the effort, avoiding any static stamp of approval or list of boxes to check. And ultimately, the measure of success will come from the people who set the project in motion—grantees.

Infante does hope that taking on such principles will only be the start for foundations, almost like “training wheels” for philanthropy to start yielding power. And she hopes that they’ll begin asking questions about the role philanthropy should play, and that one day, this type of giving could become the norm.

“What would our roles be if we weren’t the experts, the gatekeepers?” she says. “I don’t think it means we are all out of a job, but I do think there could be thoughtful reorientations to what our roles are and how we can augment and support the social, economic and political movements of our time.”

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