Beeston’s Blog: “Trust-based Philanthropy” – shifting the power dynamic in the relationship between fund-seekers and fund-givers

Each month we feature blogs by Emma Beeston of the Emma Beeston Consultancy and Sarah Taragon and Steve Woollett of Clarity CIC.

Today’s blog, entitled “Trust-based Philanthropy” is by Emma and explores the relationship between grant providers and grant recipients.

“Trust-based Philanthropy”

Trust-based philanthropy has been gaining traction. It’s an approach that captures the spirit of our times in which ways are being sought to shift the power dynamic inherent in the relationship between fund-seekers and fund-givers. In traditional philanthropy the power sits with those with the money and how they choose to allocate it. In reality both sides need each other to achieve their aims. It is hard to do good if you can’t channel your funds to someone with expertise and the ability to make things happen; and you need access to funds to deliver change. To balance the relationship more equally, trust (the firm belief in the reliability, truth, credibility, and ability of someone) is at the heart of this exchange.

The Trust-based Philanthropy Project was set up by The Whitman InstituteHeadwaters Foundation and Robert Sterling Clark Foundation in the USA in 2018. The six principles of trust-based philanthropy are:

o Give multi-year unrestricted funding.
o Do the homework.
o Simplify and streamline paperwork.
o Be transparent and responsive.
o Solicit and act on feedback, and
o Offer support beyond the cheque.

These practical steps – and the values behind them – chime with other recent calls for good practice in the UK such as the Covid-19 pledges and IVAR’s #FlexibleFunders campaign. These are all calls to change the grant-making process from one where fund-seekers are made to jump through funder-imposed hoops to one which respects their time and expertise.

One of the key approaches to enacting a trust-based approach is participatory philanthropy, where decisions on allocating funds are made by those most affected. This approach starts with trust: a fundamental belief that communities understand the issues, know what needs to be done and can work together to allocate resources. Though by no means an easy approach to take to your giving, it will not work at all if the trust is not there at the start. Khadra Aden of Camden Giving puts it like this in her blog for the recently launched Participatory Grantmaking website:

“We have to be deliberate in how we build community and trust before we even get to the decision making.”

For many philanthropists and grant-makers, the level of delegation in full participatory approaches is a leap too far. But taking a more trust-based approach is still well within reach. If you are not ready to ‘trust first’, you can spend time up front to understand organisations and those they serve, but with the intention that you will ‘trust later’ rather than continually checking and reassessing each and every move they want to make. This ‘trust later’ approach means the grant-giver identifies which groups to support and then gets out of their way and lets them allocate funds and direct their own strategies as they see fit. It is the approach taken by the funder Thousand Currents:

“We provide general operating support with no strings or conditions attached. Because of our due diligence before committing to our partners…” 

And by philanthropist MacKenzie Scott when distributing nearly $6 billion in 2020: 

“We do this research and deeper diligence not only to identify organizations with high potential for impact, but also to pave the way for unsolicited and unexpected gifts given with full trust and no strings attached.”

By focussing time and effort upfront, this approach reduces the burden of grant management and reporting (for both sides) and replaces these with a lighter touch approach focussed on mutual learning. The initial scrutiny can also provide the reassurance needed to support new organisations.

This is important because without careful thought a trust-based approach can reinforce bias: in other words it is easier to trust who and what we already know. As expressed so clearly by Vu Le of Nonprofit AF:

“It is only natural, that if you don’t trust people, you are careful with your money around them. This is a reason why 90% of funding in the sector still goes to white-led organizations”.

For proactive fund-givers this means looking beyond their usual contacts and networks to actively seek out grassroots groups and those led by communities experiencing racial and other injustice who are doing great work. For those open to applications, it is ensuring their programmes, processes and attitudes to risk do not exclude new and marginalised groups from the opportunity to be supported and trusted.

Ultimately trust-based philanthropy creates a more equal partnership between fund-seekers and fund-givers. Whether a ‘trust first’ or ‘trust later’ approach is taken, in order for trust-based approaches to truly shift the power dynamic, they must be applied in a way that makes their rewards accessible to all.”

If you have any thoughts or comments on Emma’s article, we’d love to hear from you. Simply email any comments to

Emma Beeston is a philanthropy adviser who works with grant-makers, companies and families to create and implement giving strategies. You can find out more about Emma and her work on the Emma Beeston Consultancy website.

Image: Emma Beeston