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  • Writer's pictureTaylor Bishop

Let's Make Grant Funding Equitable and Easier: It's Time to Implement Trust-Based Philanthropy

This year has brought to light many inequities and shown us ways we can all be more mindful and inclusive. Nonprofits across the world have been working harder than ever to provide for growing community needs, and complicated grant funding requirements add more stress and hinder their ability to invest time in programming.

The grant-making process is deeply intertwined with issues of power, equity, and representation. And it’s time for change.

The Think BIG team has taken interest in a movement to redefine the relationships between donors and the nonprofits that rely on their funding. It’s called trust-based philanthropy, and its goal is to progress our grant-making system and redistribute power — systemically, organizationally, and interpersonally — in service of a healthier and more equitable nonprofit ecosystem.

A recent study from the Open Road Alliance found that funder-created obstacles account for nearly half of the roadblocks that prevent nonprofits from meeting their missions.

For this reason, The Whitman Institute collaborated with others in its sector to found the trust-based philanthropy principles in 2018.

6 Principles of Trust-Based Philanthropy

The six principles of trust-based philanthropy are a useful starting point for funders who want to explore or deepen their commitment to improving the application and funding processes.

Ready to make your funds more successful, rewarding, and effective? We will briefly explain each principle, and you can go to Trust-Based Philanthropy’s website to learn more.

1) Give Multi-Year, Unrestricted Funding

Multi-year, unrestricted funding gives grantees the flexibility to assess and determine where grant dollars are most needed, and allows for innovation, emergent action, and sustainability.

“Providing multi-year general operating support provides us with a level of learning that we wouldn’t have in a one-year grant. When we make longer-term open investments, we build deeper relationships and get closer to the ground, rather than getting caught in reporting on a specific program with an outcome. We’re able to talk more with organizations about bigger issues that affect systems change, and how we can be a better partner to our organizations to help them in their journey.” - Sarah Walczyk, Satterberg Foundation

2) Do the Homework

Trust-based philanthropy makes it the funder’s responsibility to get to know prospective grantees, saving nonprofits time in the early stages of the vetting process.

3) Simplify & Streamline Paperwork

Nonprofits spend an inordinate amount of time on funder-imposed paperwork. Streamlined approaches free up staff time, and pave the way for deeper relationships and mutual accountability.

4) Be Transparent & Responsive

Open communication helps build relationships rooted in trust and mutual accountability. When funders model transparency, power awareness, and vulnerability, it signals to grantees that they can show up more fully.

5) Solicit & Act on Feedback

A foundation’s work will be inherently more successful if it is informed by the expertise and lived experience of grantee partners.

We were inspired by Brenda Solorzano, Chief Executive Officer of Headwaters Foundation, and her story on how her foundation built trust in the community and received feedback. Solorzano shared that she was ready to leave philanthropy before becoming the CEO of Headwaters.

“I grew up professionally in the field and felt like a cog in a system after years of jumping through hoops internally while making grantees jump through hoops externally,” Solorzano said in a Trust-Based Philanthropy feature. “I got an opportunity to participate in a mid-career leadership program that asked, how might you use your core values to develop a life plan that has both personal and professional components? I got clear on two things through that year-long experience: one, that a core value of mine was equity, and two, that philanthropy wasn’t equitable. Instead of continuing to believe that it had to be this way, the program opened up the possibility for me to wonder, what would it look like if I did it differently?”

Solorzano was ready to implement what she learned, and she started by inviting everyone in their database to attend a community meeting to nominate organizations that they thought should receive support for their work.

6) Offer Support Beyond the Check

Responsive, adaptive, non-monetary support bolsters leadership, capacity, and organizational health. Here are a few steps you can take to foster a deeper sense of connection to grantees and their work:

  • Introduce grantees to other funders and like-minded organizations, and emphasize to those funders what you’ve learned from these organizations.

  • Listen to your grantee partners for any needs, challenges, or opportunities that you might be able to respond to with support

  • Highlight grantees’ work in your newsletter, on your website, on webinars, and/or during conference presentations

Private and community foundations gave about $85 billion in 2018, according to IRS filings. This sizable amount of funding makes a big impact on nonprofits and the communities they serve, and trust-based philanthropy is helping make sure that the funding process from selection to relationship-building is centered around transparency, dialogue, and mutual learning.

Learn more about the Trust-based Philanthropy model at

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