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Weaving Trust-Based Philanthropy into a Participatory Initiative

Date: November 21, 2023

Winifred Olliff

Director of Operations, Borealis Philanthropy, Consultant

Katy Love

Consultant; Former Director of Grantmaking, Wikimedia Foundation

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Funders across the United States are shifting their approaches to philanthropy in order to more meaningfully involve and shift power to people from the communities they are funding. Two popular approaches that may provide a counterweight to the harmful power dynamics present in conventional philanthropy are participatory philanthropy and trust-based philanthropy.

  • Participatory philanthropy is a practice that explicitly includes the participation of community members (non-funders) with lived expertise in a relevant issue area. It shifts the usual power dynamics of foundation-led decision-making by inviting community members to make decisions in the grantmaking process and/or the foundation’s broader strategy and planning work. Participatory grantmaking, an approach within participatory philanthropy, is a structured process through which community members with lived expertise make decisions about grants.
  • Trust-based philanthropy challenges inherent power imbalances between funders and the nonprofit organizations they fund. Through clearly enunciated values and a set of best practices, like multi-year unrestricted funding and streamlined applications and reporting requirements, it provides a framework for more equitable and power-conscious funder-grantee relationships. Beyond grantmaking alone, trust-based philanthropy also leans on core values to guide other dimensions of philanthropic work, including culture, structures, and leadership.

Common Values, Distinct Frameworks

These two approaches have a lot of common ground, starting with a shared mission of overturning the assumption that funders know best and, relatedly, trusting the expertise of those who are closest to the issues philanthropy seeks to address. They both emphasize collaboration, redistributing power, and working for systemic equity. Both are values-based, process-oriented, and relationship-driven in their overall philosophy and ethos.

The list of tactics they promote overlap in many ways, too, including encouraging community-informed strategies and boards that reflect the communities served. Participatory philanthropy might at times call for trust-based structures to enhance funder-nonprofit relationships and trust-based philanthropy might at times call for participatory grantmaking to demonstrate trust in community experience and expertise.

Still, the two approaches have different origin stories and offer different frameworks for funders making design choices. This means that even with their aligned values, overlap in practices, and similar goals, mixing and matching the approaches can be tricky. Our experience with a recent grantmaking initiative demonstrates the benefits of taking both approaches into account and the challenges of trying to integrate them.

Leading with Trust-Based Values

We co-led a three-year Participatory Climate Initiative of Fund for Shared Insight, a funder collaborative seeking to improve philanthropy by centering the people and communities at the heart of our work. Our many years of experience with participatory philanthropy practice informed the design and implementation of this initiative, from planning through evaluation. We also incorporated some of the values and practices of trust-based philanthropy. Integrating trust-based approaches into our participatory philanthropy initiative was important because addressing systemic inequities and shifting power is complex and requires multiple, complementary strategies and practices.

But we had to be flexible and iterative in our efforts because there are some inherent tensions between the two approaches. For example, many of the trust-based grantmaking practices have been designed to address the context of a traditional model where decisions are held by a small group of deciders within a funding organization. A participatory approach, on the other hand, almost by definition involves a large number of stakeholders in a web of relationships and layered power dynamics.

One area where this difference can create a challenge is around communication. Trust-based grantmakers highly value transparency, which involves keeping applicants informed, being responsive, centering relationships, and creating opportunities to meaningfully connect with grantees and others during the decision-making process and beyond. While participatory philanthropy shares a value around transparency, it is logistically difficult to communicate transparently and responsively across a large and diverse group of stakeholders — in our case, spanning time zones, languages, and cultural norms. We could not assume that our large group would model transparent communication on their own without support. As facilitators, we had to intentionally intervene to ensure that communication was clear and understood across various lines of difference.

Another area of tension came in how participants thought about their responsibility to make “data-driven” decisions. While trust-based grantmakers seek to reduce the burden on grantees, many of the decision makers in our participatory philanthropy initiative entered the process expecting a breadth of information from grant seekers. Since many participants had spent time with nonprofits that had firsthand experience with conventional philanthropic requests — such as detailed portfolios, financial reports, tax documents, measurements of key performance indicators, etc. — they expected the same level of detail and information from the grant seekers going through the process. It is clear that some of the conventions of philanthropy have become so normalized that even when people with experience in nonprofits are in the decision-making seat, they may default to the same extractive practices they may have experienced themselves.

Our response to this was to lean into the trust-based principles of systemic equity and guide participants to engage in thoughtful discussion and self-examination. We encouraged them to raise questions about traditional ways of working in philanthropy and to tease out what information they felt they really required to make “good decisions.”

While we were able to institute processes to alleviate tensions around transparency and information requests, we faced one major structural hurdle that we were not able to overcome. As a one-time exploratory program, our initiative was not able to offer multi-year grants, which is a basic tenet of trust-based grantmaking. Another tenet is offering general operating support grants. While all grants to 501(c)(3) organizations were unrestricted, as a fiscally sponsored initiative, Shared Insight was also bound by funding distribution rules that did not allow us to offer general operating support to grantees with certain legal structures (such as LLCs). These issues should remind other funder organizations — whether collaboratives, intermediaries, or private foundations — to give careful thought to how their organizational structure may or may not support the practical values of different grantmaking approaches and how that might define their role in this space.

Centering Relationships and Learning

The overarching lesson of integrating these frameworks is that relationships are dynamic, and that cultivating shared trust and understanding takes time. Moreover, applying participatory and/or trust-based philanthropy is an iterative process that is more about embodying values than it is about implementing à la carte tactics. At the end of the day, both of these approaches are about committing to power shifting and systemic equity, and using those values as a north star to work through moments of challenge, disagreement, and tension. This means there is no perfect way to implement either approach, and that we must remain open to learning and evolving as we go.

We are eager to see more initiatives emerge that explicitly look at integrating participatory philanthropy and trust-based philanthropy. Funders integrating these approaches — and all the participants in the process — will surely benefit from the many complementary values and practices that are needed to achieve meaningful outcomes. And with more examples across the field, we hope to see more lessons that will help our sector examine and merge different ways of working that center people and communities in decision making.

Winifred Olliff is a consultant who focuses on aligning philanthropy and nonprofit operations with long-term strategies and values, and they are also Director of Operations at Borealis Philanthropy. Katy Love is an experienced practitioner of participatory philanthropy and former director of grantmaking at the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that stewards Wikipedia. The authors would like to thank Shaady Salehi and Rashanda Freeman from the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project for their contributions to this article.

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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