A Power Reckoning on Trust in Philanthropy, From Both Sides of the Pond: Part 2 – Levers for Change, Grounded in Trust

This post was originally published on the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy’s blog, and is reprinted here with permission.

In part 1 of this series, we shared how two parallel initiatives — the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project (TBP Project) and the Institute for Voluntary Action Research’s (IVAR) Open and Trusting initiative — are working to bring about a new era of balance, transparency, and authenticity in philanthropy on both sides of the Atlantic.

Both the TBP Project and IVAR grantmaking communities have a peer-to-peer approach at their core, under the theory that if they begin with foundations learning from each other about concrete practice changes and the principles underlying them, then they can create shared know-how and commitment, a sense of possibility, and the confidence to test new ideas and approaches.

But both organizations recognize, too, that simply adjusting the mechanics of the work is not enough to make the change stick. The underlying paradigm about the role of philanthropy vis-à-vis nonprofits has to change as well.

In this post, we share the levers and tools IVAR and the TBP Project are testing to achieve change.Peer Pressure and Accountability

Research shows that foundations are most influenced by their peers (William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, 2017). In the U.K., IVAR asks participating funders to publicly sign on to eight commitments as part of the “cost of entry” into the community. IVAR hopes that the public commitment alongside their colleagues encourages follow-through and creates a sense for other funders that they should be part of a movement that includes so many of their peers.

However, IVAR recognizes that this may not be enough to trigger sustained action. They are trying to understand how to engage with the Open and Trusting community in a way that increases accountability for translating words into reality. At the same time, says Ben Cairns, IVAR’s director, they “recognize that institutional change is often slow and uneven, and we’re working to find ways to bring as many people on the journey as we can.”

The TBP Project is using a champions approach, with a set of core participants — foundation CEOs, staff, and trustees of diverse backgrounds and lived experience — actively making themselves available to present their trust-based journeys and experiences on webinars, at conferences, and in private board meetings.

The TBP Project also launched a peer exchange listserv where hundreds of foundation staff have the opportunity to connect with each other, ask questions, and offer guidance to one another. Like IVAR, the TBP Project’s hypothesis is that foundations tend to be most responsive to one another rather than to actors external to philanthropy. They are interested in learning from IVAR’s approach of public sign-ups as a way of increasing transparency, while also considering ways to engage more intentionally with nonprofits to learn about what is working and what’s not, in order to reinforce more sector-wide accountability to nonprofits and communities.Amplification and Common Messaging

The TBP Project has dedicated considerable energy to strategic communications, developing common messaging and an amplification strategy that activates champions to amplify that messaging across a variety of philanthropy engagement platforms, often in partnership with philanthropic serving organizations (e.g., national groups like National Council on Family Philanthropy, as well as issue-based funder affinity groups and regional grantmaking associations).

As a time-limited initiative slated to wind down by the end of 2024, the TBP Project aims to engage as many other allies in using their voices to advocate for this approach as possible. In less than two years, since its January 2020 inception, the Project has seen a rapid uptake across the sector, not just among foundations but also among the myriad other actors who shape the philanthropic ecosystem.

Now that IVAR has built a community of funders committed to abiding by the eight Open and Trusting commitments, it is interested in activating a coordinated group to emphasize the same points in different ways with different audiences, creating a megaphone that gets people asking, ‘Why aren’t we doing it that way?’ On-the-record interviews and blog pieces from funders themselves about how and why they are doing things differently will likely be critical to recruiting more participants and sustaining change over time.Providing a Platform to Hear the Perspective of Nonprofits

Nonprofits in both the U.S. and the U.K. have been raising the same issues for decades, noting that it’s rare for a funder to truly listen or change their behavior.

The TBP Project in the U.S. was born after the San Francisco-based spend-down foundation The Whitman Institute (TWI) got important feedback from grantees about how to spend their final ten years. Grantees advised the foundation that they should work toward getting more funders on board with the way TWI approached its philanthropy — with trust, partnership, and unrestricted support.

For IVAR, too, the Open and Trusting initiative aligns with many years of research into the needs and interests of nonprofits.

Both IVAR and the TBP Project have the sense that the philanthropic sector should also be held accountable to its commitments by nonprofit organizations themselves, and finding a way to make this happen is critical.

Drawing on its legacy of sector research, IVAR sees an opportunity to collate the experiences of nonprofits and translate that into a call for tangible change, as well as an assessment of whether they are experiencing real differences in the practices and mindset of funders they encounter. The TBP Project is also exploring ways to collect learnings and insights from nonprofit leaders, while also examining concurrent fieldwide data from organizations that regularly survey the nonprofit sector, such as the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Candid, and the Johnson Center for Philanthropy.What’s at stake, and what’s next?

Shaady and Ben believe the philanthropic sector as they first encountered it more than 20 years ago could indeed make quantum leaps in the coming years (see Kathleen Enright’s “How Philanthropy Can Make the Quantum Leaps Society is Counting On”). The initiatives they lead are working toward an almost unrecognizable philanthropy that is centered on equity, power-sharing, and relationships. On both sides of the pond, the opportunity to reconcile what philanthropy has been with what it could be and will become feels urgent, necessary, and alive with hope.

How do they plan on crossing the tipping point? By sharing their own learning journeys, and continuing to invite others to share their experiences and visions for a new philanthropic sector, from within and beyond philanthropy. These initiatives are situated within a much larger movement calling for change, and our nonprofit partners, leaders, and communities are ready for it. Interested in being part of a community of funders trying to shift power and adopt more trusting practices?

Tanya Beer is learning facilitator and developmental evaluator who helps groups learn their way together through complex collaborative change initiatives.

Shaady Salehi is the Director of the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project. She is a strategist, facilitator, and network builder who has dedicated nearly two decades to advancing culture and narrative shift.

Ben Cairns

Ben Cairns is co-founder and director of the Institute for Voluntary Action Research, where he leads work on open and trusting grant-making. He has almost 35 years’ experience of working in and researching social change organisations and their funders.

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