Moving from Deceit to Trust: The Necessity of Listening

Melinda Tuan

A colleague recently asked me how much has changed since I wrote “The Dance of Deceit,” a 2004 Stanford Social Innovation Review article in which I reflected on my seven years as managing director of REDF and the power imbalances I observed and experienced. In the piece, I described the dysfunctional power dynamics and undercurrent of fear and distrust that too often exists between funders and nonprofits.

When I left REDF, I was frankly disillusioned by some of my experiences as a “high-engagement funder” of a portfolio of direct-service organizations running employment social enterprises. I saw how funders issued labyrinthine application guidelines and intricate reporting requirements – and how nonprofits labored over and sometimes lied to meet those expectations. And I experienced firsthand how some executive directors tried to hide the realities of their financial crises from their boards and funders, fearful of losing precious funding if they told the truth.

Back then, I posited that high-quality performance management, more widespread adoption of the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Grantee Perception Report (GPR), and the growing network of funders involved in Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) were the answers to shifting power and bringing more candor and trust to relationships between nonprofits and funders.

Fast forward seventeen years and I am far more hopeful. More than 300 funders have commissioned GPRs (still too few, but progress) and more than 6,000 grantmakers have committed to working through GEO to lift up grantmaking practices that best support effective nonprofits. And Leap Ambassadors’ community of 300 nonprofit and foundation leaders is dedicated to raising expectations and promoting the adoption of high performance in our sector.

Also, during COVID, more than 800 funders signed the Council on Foundations’ pledge to make it easier for nonprofits to get grants, report on their grants, and receive general operating support. That commitment included listening to people and communities, considering them experts in their own lives and aspirations. And a growing number of foundations – as noted by CEP, the Chronicle of Philanthropy, and many others – are taking steps to put equity at the center of their work.

The recent trust-based philanthropy movement championed by the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project is another promising sign of how funders are changing. The basic tenet behind trust-based philanthropy is believing that nonprofits know best what they need. Trust-based philanthropy encourages funders to adopt a set of values that include leading with trust, centering relationships, collaborating with humility and curiosity, redistributing power, and working for systemic equity.

At Fund for Shared Insight, the national funder collaborative I’ve managed for the past seven years, we share and believe in those values. We also see our work, which focuses on listening and acting on what we hear, as essential to living out those values and building trust across the sector. Our goal is to help foundations and nonprofits meaningfully connect with the people and communities who are often least consulted by philanthropy but most harmed by structural racism and other systemic inequities we seek to address. We believe that high-quality listening and feedback can be powerful tools for improving people’s lives in ways they define for themselves.

In the same way that trust-based philanthropy encourages funders to trust nonprofits as experts in what they need, Shared Insight encourages nonprofits and foundations to trust that the people and communities they serve know best what they need. We see a deep connection between funders practicing high-quality listening with nonprofit partners and funders and nonprofits engaging in high-quality feedback loops with the people and communities at the heart of their work.

One of the six key principles put forth by the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, in addition to its core values, is “Solicit & Act on Feedback.” We agree that “a foundation’s work will be inherently more successful if it is informed by the expertise and lived experience of grantee partners.” In addition, Shared Insight believes that the work of nonprofits will be inherently more successful if it is informed by the expertise and lived experience of the people and communities they serve – and that foundations should support their grantee partners in building the capacity to listen.

Our signature initiative, Listen4Good, is a capacity-building program specifically designed to help nonprofits listen and respond to the people most impacted by their work. Many of the nonprofits participating in Listen4Good are nominated by a funder that helps underwrite the cost of participation. Across our 120 Listen4Good funding partners, we’ve seen many examples of how the funders’ participation in the program has helped shift their own listening practices as they learn alongside grantees.

For example, when the Melville Charitable Trust (the largest foundation in the U.S. exclusively devoted to ending homelessness) learned about the opportunity to sponsor grantees to participate in Listen4Good, its leaders decided to first survey their nonprofit partners with CEP’s Grantee Perception Report to gather direct feedback about their partners’ performance and funding experiences. They did not want to ask their nonprofit partners to do anything they hadn’t done themselves. Listening to grantees through the report was an essential step towards building trust between the foundation and its nonprofit partners, and prioritizing healthy, open, honest relationships.

In a CEP blog post last year, LaTida Smith, president and CEO of the Moses Taylor Foundation, reflected on how participating in Listen4Good alongside a group of grantees led the foundation to appreciate listening as a central strategy for achieving its mission. When COVID hit and the foundation began thinking about how to respond, Smith wrote that she felt “emboldened by our Listen4Good grantees who initially had been wary of feedback, yet who learned that asking and receiving honest responses – no matter how overwhelming – would be better than not asking at all.” Ultimately, Moses Taylor incorporated feedback into many aspects of its work – adding feedback questions into its grant applications and reporting processes, including implementation of feedback loops in its strategic plan, and engaging peer funders in listening together.

I am inspired by these examples that clearly demonstrate the power of Listen4Good and the importance of the GPR. And I recognize these programs are not right for every circumstance and believe that foundations should explore other non-extractive, high-quality ways to listen to people and communities. That’s why Shared Insight has developed a resource, Listening & Feedback: A Funder Action Menu, to help foundations think in systematic ways about how to promote listening and feedback across the many dimensions of their work.

It’s been a long time since I first started thinking about the grantmaking world’s dance of deceit, and I do believe things have improved since then. But I also believe that funders can and should change even more – diving more deeply and committedly into the kind of listening and feedback practices that advance equity and bring us closer to living out the meaningful and essential values at the heart of trust-based philanthropy.

Melinda Tuan is managing director of Fund for Shared Insight. Follow Melinda on Twitter at @MelindaTuan and the Fund for Shared Insight at @4SharedInsight.

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