Check out CEP’s new searchable database of resources for individuals and grantmakers.

Contact Us



The Power of Trust-Based Philanthropy for Black Women Leaders

Date: December 5, 2023

Vanessa McDowell-Atlas

CEO, YWCA Madison

Never Miss A Post

Share this Post:

Trust-based philanthropy means something different to black women nonprofit leaders. We are often not trusted out of the gate because of bias due to our intersectional identity. We are often questioned about our decisions — and we are often treated as if we are not enough. If trust-based philanthropy is, in its essence, about shifting the power dynamics between funders and grantees and building genuine relationships with grantees, then black women nonprofit leaders stand to gain significantly by its practice. The example MacKenzie Scott has set in her giving brings this home.

The Whitman Institute coined the phrase “trust-based philanthropy” as they received feedback from their grantees about how they were making a difference through their grantmaking and building real relationships with organizations. Their grantees were calling on them to share with other funders how they move with such intention. They answered the call by creating “The Trust-Based Philanthropy Project” in which the participating foundations committed to “center equity, humility and transparency; recognize the power imbalance between funders and grantees, and work to actively rebalance it; and deeply value the quality of relationships, and honor how we treat others on the path to winning on our issues, as much as the act of winning itself.”

In 2020, Mackenzie Scott shocked the country when she moved in a similar vein by committing to a personal giving pledge in which she stated in her pledge letter, “My approach to philanthropy will continue to be thoughtful. It will take time and effort and care. But I won’t wait. And I will keep at it until the safe is empty.” She created Yield Giving which is named after a belief in adding value by giving up control. According to Mackenzie Scott’s Yield Giving website, her first set of 116 organizations that she gave a total of a little over $1.6 billion dollars was made up of 91 percent of racial equity organizations run by leaders of color, 100 percent of LGBTQ+ equity organizations run by LGBTQ+ leaders, and 83 percent of gender equity organizations run by women, bringing lived experience to solutions for imbalanced social systems. This is so powerful! Mackenzie Scott knows what it means to give with intention to organizations led by people from marginalized communities.

As a black woman leading an organization committed to racial and gender equity, it hits different when a donor makes it clear that they trust you, and backs that up with action. In 2020, I received an email asking for a 15-minute call. I was told it was about a philanthropist who is interested in contributing to our organization, only to find out that it was someone from Mackenzie Scott’s team informing me that we were the recipient of a large unrestricted financial gift — a gift of a size our organization had never seen before in its history. Here is the thank you letter that I wrote to Mackenzie Scott:

January 4, 2021

Dear Ms. Mackenzie Scott,

Let me first start by saying thank you. I was in tears and at a loss for words when I received the call from your representative sharing with me about the unrestricted gift that you were blessing us with.

Let me tell you why this gift was right on time. A week prior to receiving the call, I was preparing to present to my Asset Management Committee that Friday a budget with a $400k deficit. I was trying to inspire my staff at our all-staff meeting that week to dream about what could be possible with the work that we want to do in our community knowing we did not have the dollars to do most of what we were dreaming of. I had to have multiple conversations with my Directors team of why we could not afford to do certain programming and how we needed to cut back on the necessary and essential programming that we offer to communities of color, women, children, and families. I was stressing about how to keep a program and staff that serve women and children fleeing domestic violent situations and provides them with safe and affordable housing. I was also dealing with the reality of loss of funding for our permanent supportive housing program. We are the largest provider of affordable housing for single women in our county. Some of these women have been living with us for over thirty years and would have no other options than being homeless. The thought of cutting that support was unthinkable. I presented the $400k deficit budget to the Asset Management Committee and of course the questions came of what my plan was to cover such a large deficit and move forward with these programs. I shared that we would have an aggressive fundraising goal and we would look into applying for more sustainable grants. In the back of my mind thinking I needed a miracle.

After that meeting that Friday, I took a break for the holiday and that week is when I received the call. I asked twice if I heard your representative correctly as far as the amount and the unrestricted nature of the gift. I have been trying to push our local philanthropic community to move in an unrestricted direction with their giving. As a black woman leading this organization, you can only imagine the amount of scrutiny I have received in the funding world just because I am a black woman. My very identity comes with lack of trust which is ridiculous. So to hear that you understand that and have given this gift without restrictions makes me feel trusted as a leader. Our organizational values are Humanity, Community, Growth, and Restoration. With your generosity, I believe you have lifted our values in a real way. I am humbled that you were able to see us and the work that we do each and everyday to serve our community. We live out our mission everyday of eliminating racism and empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all. This gift will be a launching pad for us to dream again.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!
In Humanity, Community, Growth, and Restoration, Vanessa McDowell, CEO

What funders fail to realize is that they are stifling black women flourishing in their leadership by having us spend time proving our personal worth and organizational worth by the constant questioning of our expertise, questioning how we are using the dollars, along with the audacious reporting requirements for what often amounts to pennies. Imagine what this world would look like if black women were given the trust we deserve to lead our organizations — if philanthropy operated in trusting partnership with us. We would all be better for it. So, funders do me a favor: TRUST ME.

Vanessa McDowell-Atlas is the CEO of YWCA Madison. Find her on LinkedIn.

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

From the Blog