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Taking on ‘Trust’ in Global Development Philanthropy

Date: October 13, 2022

Nina Blackwell

Executive Director, Firelight

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Trust has become an important concept in global development philanthropy, but we need to really understand it before we preach it. Indeed, sector discussions on the subject can risk stopping short of addressing important questions that are critical to the concept as a whole.

Here are some starters: Why, in ‘traditional’ global development philanthropy is trust the privilege of donors with power and money? Also, why must grantees and non-profits earn trust in exchange for capital? And why do only some non-profits engender the trust of donors?

One final question: Why do so many of us in the global development philanthropy sector apparently find it so hard to place our trust in the very communities we say we want to help?

While the concept of “trust” is factoring more and more into our philanthropic lexicon, we need to continue to put it under the microscope if we are to reform global development philanthropy and make it as anti-racist, anti-colonial, anti-white supremacist/saviorist — and as effective — as it can be.

Back in 2017, Firelight started a three-year inquiry, listening deeply to communities in sub-Saharan Africa to understand how best to support them in creating lasting change and to share the insights of their leaders with the wider sector (read our report here).

What we learned suggests that trust is a big issue. First of all, for many in Global North philanthropy, community initiatives and community-based organizations can’t be “trusted” because they don’t look like international NGOs, they can’t do the work at “scale,” or they exist in situations which make us think they’ll be more exposed to corruption or donor dependence. In contrast, there’s an inclination to trust larger, Global North-based nonprofit organizations because these organizations have the resources and language to suggest that they are “trustworthy.”

So, what can we do?

We can start by understanding the hugely divergent ways in which, as Firelight’s experience and research shows, communities and community-based organizations conceptualize trust, in contrast to the version espoused by global development funders.

First of all, funders tend to trust their own instincts and research to decide what a problem or opportunity is. We’ve all done it — commissioned a report or a field scan and developed a strategy around that, rather than asking communities themselves where they believe the challenges or opportunities are the greatest for them.

Secondly, funders tend to judge organizational effectiveness (one aspect of trustworthiness) based on what’s important to them as funders, not on what makes organizations most effective in their local context for long term, systemic change. While we all (donors and community-based organizations alike) value measurable impact, reaching scale, cost-effectiveness, and replicability, community-based organizations also more deeply value that their host communities are empowered to create and sustain change on their own. They want actions to be driven by communities, to see meaningful improvement in the lives of community members, and to ensure lasting change in the systems in which the community lives.

There are also differences in how we assess an organization’s trustworthiness. While funders might look for existing donors, randomized control trials, or external evaluations as measures of trustworthiness or accountability, community-based organizations focus on how transparent they are with the community itself, how successfully they engage with local stakeholders and systems, the integrity of their leadership, and their accountability to the community around them.

At Firelight, we’ve also learned the importance of trusting the community itself. To be honest, we’ve not always done this. At times, we decided what the problem might be for local communities and often suggested the solution or the approach. But today — as at our founding — we unapologetically support an approach to development and social transformation that emphasizes the insight, leadership, and ownership of the people who are living and experiencing issues at the community level, and their work to create lasting change in the systems and root causes that underlie the critical issues they seek to address.

But why should our own perceptions of trust as funders come into the equation at all? We’re not the ones with lives or systems or futures at stake. The arrogance of centering the privilege of trust with global development funders and international actors is not just jarring, it doesn’t work. Don’t take my word for it, read what community leaders have to say.

The truth is, we’ve learned that transforming traditional funding relationships to deliver sustainable and lasting change is about shifting power from funder to community so completely that the real question is not whether the funder trusts the organization or the community, but whether the community trusts the funder.

Our goal at Firelight is to prove ourselves worthy of the community’s trust and earn the right to support them to realize their vision for change.

If you’re interested in shifting how trust operates in your funding relationships, these steps, part of a series of tools developed with our grantee-partners to support community driven systems change, are important:

  1. Believe in community. Community is not a panacea. No community is perfect but, in most cases, the people (even in the Global North!) that are closest to the challenge or opportunity are the ones who, by-and-large, are most needed to address it and most effective at doing so.
  2. Partner with community-based organizations: Support local organizations as a legitimate sector of actors within global development. They are not subcontractors or “local actors” — they are the key protagonists in many communities’ lives. If looking to fund community-based organizations, ask the community which local organizations they trust.
  3. Fund a learning and planning period before “work” starts: This places the power of root cause identification, ideal state mapping, action planning, and evaluation in the hands of the community and gives community-based organizations dedicated time, funds, and capacity support to learn and plan.
  4. Establish a partnership rooted in solidarity, shared values, mutual respect, and shared learning. There must be flexibility too, so that local organizations and the community know they can adapt to unexpected outcomes or needs.
  5. Provide longer-term, predictable funding that supports participatory community action for long-term systemic change. Systems change takes time and community-based organizations need the security and reliability — as well as flexibility — provided by longer term funding to take the risks required. We typically provide funding for 5-7 years.
  6. Grant requirements should be simple, flexible, useful, and support community-based organizations: For example, proposal templates should support broader goal-setting and planning with the community — not just telling the funder how grant funds specifically will be used. Equally, reporting templates should include support for community reflections on progress and information on use of grant funds.
  7. Establish systems to reduce bias and strengthen learning and accountability in grantmaking, for example, having more than one person involved in grantee selection and grant decision-making and having transparent systematic criteria to guide grantee selection, proposal review, report review, and grant decision-making.
  8. If you can’t fund community-based organizations directly, make sure your NGO grantees trust them and their communities. Do not let them determine the problem or the outcome or the work for communities. Do not let them take community outcomes and pass them off as their own work.
  9. If you have a question, rather than asking other funders, ask the community or your community-based grantee-partners. What are you so afraid of that’s keeping you from asking them and trusting their response?

Nina Blackwell is outgoing executive director of Firelight, a multi-donor public charity that supports community-driven systems change for children and youth in southern and eastern Africa. Follow Firelight on Twitter and find out more at

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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