My path to philanthropy leads through the Appalachian mountains, where I grew up surrounded by a strong-knit yet financially impoverished community. Although my hometown is full of good people, it is a place that lacks economic opportunity.
Through a combination of sheer determination and a lot of good luck, I was able to break into the world I had longed dreamed of. I’m grateful to have attended a prestigious university and that I went on to become one of the youngest female partners at McKinsey. I learned so much, but the lessons that most inform my giving began much earlier.
My mother, a first-grade teacher, always knew when a child was lacking a warm coat or when a struggling family needed groceries. What I was most struck by was not her generosity, but the way in which she gave quietly and carefully — always ensuring whoever was on the receiving end maintained their dignity, a critical commodity in a small town of folks who prided themselves on their self-sufficiency. Thanks to her example, I have always viewed giving as an act of “loving our neighbor as ourselves.”
When my husband and I decided to start The Monarch Foundation, this was our guiding principle; along with a commitment to live our values in our giving. And that meant doing things a lot differently than traditional philanthropy, which for too long has been dominated by a paternalistic — and quite frankly, demeaning — approach to interacting with both grantees and the recipients of direct service.
Our biggest investment embodies trust and dignity at every step. With an ambitious goal of ending childhood poverty in our home of New York City, we launched The Bridge Project in 2021. The program is an investment in our most vulnerable residents — babies living in poverty. By giving their mothers up to $1,000 a month for the first three years of their lives, we are setting these children up for a lifetime of success.
As extensive research has shown, these formative years heavily influence a child’s future prospects in everything from earning potential to healthy relationships. Rather than trying to undo the damage growing up in poverty wreaks on adults, our goal is to prevent it in the first place. Just as no one told me how I should spend my money on my own children, we do not dictate how mothers in the program use their funds. We know that they are the experts in their babies’ lives, and that no funder or researcher is better suited than they are to knowing what their child needs on a daily basis. For some mothers, it’s paying for childcare so they can return to work. For others, it’s the opposite — the money allows them to be with their babies and still cover bills while they take time away from jobs that don’t offer maternity leave.
Trust in Practice
There are no hoops for mothers to jump through to receive the money, and no restrictions on how it can be spent. Mothers have told us that, aside from the financial breathing room it’s given them, it’s also helped build their confidence to know that they are trusted and in control. As mother of two Christina said: “I don’t feel depressed anymore because I think at one point, I felt like I was failing. I didn’t even want to be a mother at one point because I felt like – how can I do this? How can I be a mom when I can’t even get them what they need or what they want? That was tough, and now I feel like I can do it. I’m here.”
Stories like Christina’s show that programs based in respect and dignity have pay-offs far beyond the tangible. We’re so thrilled with the results of the program so far that we’re now planning a major expansion in the coming year.
And trusting those receiving direct services is just one knot to untangle in weaving what we see as the new fabric of philanthropy. Grantees are fed up with the status quo. I’m sure many of us on the funder side of the table raised our eyebrows at this recent post. While it was clearly satire, there is more than a kernel of truth within its many barbs lobbed at philanthropy’s lack of diversity and love of bureaucracy. To try and do our part to right the ship, we’ve focused on building a portfolio of grantees that reflect the communities we are serving: Almost all our grantees are organizations led by women and/or people of color. We have also done our best to tear down the red tape that usually surrounds grantmaking by providing mainly unrestricted funds and accepting unsolicited proposals. We’ve also never required grant reports, preferring conversations with our grantees instead.
What We’ve Heard — And What’s Possible
The results of centering trust and dignity have been incredible. Here are just a few of the things we’ve heard from grantees:
“It is difficult to establish trust with funders, so it was amazing for Monarch to take a chance on me and my organization! With Monarch’s funding I’ve honestly and absolutely had the most impact, both immediate and long-term, in comparison to other funding received in the past 5-plus years of grants….”
“The Monarch Foundation’s trust-based approach is outstanding and rare from our experience with other foundations. They believe in the wor, and trust the approach. It is validating, refreshing, empowering, and inspiring.”
“The way in which The Monarch Foundation grants to us is pure gold. Unrestricted monies that we can use flexibly where most needed … informal discussions rather than formal reporting … a trust-based partnership focused on our achievement rather than internal budgets and staffing — it is so important and beneficial to the NGO community.”
“I especially love our check in conversations over the phone. It’s much less cumbersome than written reports, as well as being enjoyable and personable.”
I share these anecdotes not to claim we do things perfectly, but to encourage other philanthropists to abandon the status quo and embrace the risk of doing things differently. Take a step, be uncomfortable, trust people — be they the executive directors of the organization you are supporting, or a mother with a newborn trying to lift their families out of poverty. Rather than asking for reports, ask for a conversation. Ask how you can help. Because at the heart of it, being of service is what brought us all to this work.
Holly Fogle is co-principal of The Monarch Foundation, co-founder and president of The Bridge Project, and co-founder of Nido de Esperanza (Nest of Hope).