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Practicing Trust-Based Philanthropy Builds Resilient Communities

"Resilient Philanthropy" perseveres through and adapts to challenges as they arise. Using a trust-based approach in your communities can help your foundation become more resilient and enable you to better support your communities and partners.

As part of our Resilient Philanthropy webinar series, Foundant Technologies hosted Building Equitable Resilience Through Trust-Based Philanthropy, featuring Mary Cruz from the Durfee Foundation and Kim Slipy from the Initiative Foundation. Both Foundant clients realized there was more they could do to make their grantmaking processes more equitable, including improving their grantmaking applications and developing closer relationships with grantees.

What is Trust-Based Philanthropy?

The Durfee Foundation is a member of the steering committee for the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, and trust-based philanthropy is a key tenet of the Durfee Foundation's work. Former Durfee Program Manager Mary Cruz began her presentation by summarizing the meaning of trust-based philanthropy. At its core, trust-based philanthropy can be seen as a social innovation that addresses power imbalances between foundations and nonprofits and redistributes power to bring about a more effective and equitable nonprofit ecosystem.

Trust-based values

While these values are not one-size-fits-all, they are part of a broader approach to building trust in communities.

  • Trusting Partners
    A healthy and more equitable grantmaking practice requires trust between grantees and funders, and that trust requires developing relationships. This means establishing direct lines of communication between you and your community and going out of your way to listen to them.
  • Addressing the Power Imbalance
    There is a significant imbalance of power between grantees and grantmakers. Trusting your partners requires a shift of power that enables better relationships and a more equitable partnership. In her article for Exponent Philanthropy, I Used To Be on the Other Side: Reducing the Power Dynamic in Philanthropy, Lori Heninger, executive director of the Montclair Fund for Women, explains, “This is the reality for many nonprofits; they do the work and raise the money because they are committed to the missions of their organizations, and they are often afraid of the very people upon which their organizations depend—their funders. There is a power imbalance between those with the funds and those asking for the funds and, because of the nonprofit’s commitment to the mission, the staff live with it and do the best they can.”
  • Streamlining Applications and Reporting
    Trusting grantees enables you to collect less information. While some information is essential to ensure your mission is upheld, not all success can be measured with numbers and graphs. GrantAdvisor’s #FixTheForm initiative highlights examples of ways to streamline applications, including removing duplicate questions, not requiring information that’s already publicly available, providing clear eligibility requirements, and much more.

Trust-Based Practices

Mary Cruz shared the Durfee Foundation's steps to implementing these values and practicing trust-based philanthropy.

  • Provide Multi-year Funding
    The Durfee Foundation provides funding for several years to ensure grantees can focus on their mission rather than being forced to spend time reapplying for grants. Multi-year unrestricted funding also enables grantees to initiate longer-term projects, facilitating lasting change.
  • Do Homework
    Grant applications do not need to be exhaustive. Consider researching applicants in multiple ways to shorten your applications, such as looking at their public websites and financials.
  • Limit Unnecessary Paperwork
    Ask yourself if the information you are requesting is essential to your mission. Streamline the application and only collect crucial information to reduce the burden on both grantees and grantmakers. Removing repetitive questions will also improve and shorten the process. See the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project's website for grant application templates. 
  • Be Transparent and Responsive
    Trust-based philanthropy requires you to engage grantees and donors in regular conversations. Grantees benefit from knowing why you are asking for each piece of information, and transparency enables a trusting relationship. If donors want more information than is practical to collect, initiate a conversation with the donor to clarify their intent. This will help you determine if the information is essential to the process or if there are other ways to gather this information.
  • Solicit Feedback (and act on it!)
    Listening to feedback is critical to effective communications. Grantees see your applications differently than you do. Ask for and listen to grantees' perspectives to learn which parts of your grant applications are particularly challenging.
  • Provide Additional Support
    A check is not the only way to support your grantees. Connecting partners to other non-financial resources can help their organization (and yours) maximize impact. For example, Durfee occasionally invites grantees to conferences and offers to pay the registration fees so their grantees can attend these valuable educational and networking opportunities. Grants from Durfee's Springboard Fund contain more than financial support. Every grantee is also paired with a mentor from Durfee who provides advice during the grant period. Additionally, forums like Foundant's Compass and other online communities allow organizations to connect and seek new ideas. 

Valuing Trust, Partnerships, and Equity

Kim Slipy from the Initiative Foundation emphasized, "The funder/grantee relationship is best when it's built on trust-based values and fortified by partnership and equity." She explains:

  • The best way to serve any community is to listen and learn from them so that you understand their needs and demonstrate a commitment to meeting those needs.
  • Developing partnerships within the community can allow a foundation to continually learn from their partners through "the power of many."
  • An equitable process ensures partners and grantees have access to resources and your support.

These values can improve the funder/grantee relationship and can be tied directly to your organization's grantmaking practices. To apply these principles, you must first analyze your current process.

Updating the Grantmaking Process

Kim Slipy suggested a simple method to identify and prioritize updates to your grantmaking process:

  • Analyze the current process
    When analyzing your grantmaking process, ask yourself, “Why do we do it this way?" and “Who does this benefit?" This analysis requires communication with all stakeholders, including grantees, other community partners, and internal staff. If the value of a process is not clear or there are notable flaws, seek to identify possible fixes.
  • Prioritize useful fixes
    The Initiative Foundation recommends putting possible fixes for the grantmaking process into an Impact/Effort Matrix to determine which high impact/low effort fixes can be implemented quickly before focusing on more significant issues. This strategy ensures your foundation discusses every problem and potential solution, helping you prioritize issues efficiently.
  • Research and Perform
    After implementing the high impact/low effort fixes as quickly as possible, you can spend time researching the available solutions for high impact/high effort issues. Once the path to improvement is clear, you can develop an implementation plan and put it into action.

Path to Improvement

Kim Slipy shared specific actions the Initiative Foundation took to update its processes.


The #FixTheForm initiative is a great example of listening to the community. Results from GrantAdvisor’s #FixTheForm survey and other community discussions led the Initiative Foundation to transition from a two-stage application to a one-stage application by eliminating the Letter of Inquiry (LOI) stage. They found the LOI was unnecessary for their foundation, and removing this requirement made the application process much faster and easier for both grantees and staff. According to Kim, it took very little effort to stop collecting LOIs, but it had a “huge impact.”

The Initiative Foundation had also wanted to make changes to internal grantmaking processes but found these changes would not significantly impact grantees. As such, these changes became lower priorities.

Common Problems

The #FixTheForm initiative highlighted many other common problems that create barriers for grantees. The Initiative Foundation worked to address these issues, including:

  • Not being able to see the full application before starting it (#1 pain point)
  • Applications that are disproportionately long for the amount of funding offered
  • Technological limitations (lack of auto-save or copy/paste functionality)

Other Recommendations

Kim Slipy provided several more lessons learned by the Initiative Foundation:

  • Allow time to change. Improvement takes time and patience.
  • Engage stakeholders in the process. Bringing varied experience to the table can guide better changes.
  • Understand the why. Always ask why you do something. Why is it important?
  • Keep the mission at the forefront of your efforts. Ensure your goals and processes are aligned with your objectives. If something doesn't align with your mission, table it.

An equitable, trust-based approach to grantmaking improves your relationships with grantees and eliminates unnecessary work for both funders and grantees. Consider implementing trust-based values and high impact/low effort changes in your grantmaking practices. You will find that a foundation of trust can help your organization build equity and resilience.

About the Author

Foundant Technologies has specialized in making philanthropy easier and more impactful through innovative software solutions and exceptional client experiences since 2007. Passionate about philanthropy, our team is dedicated to meeting the unique needs of grantmakers, scholarship providers, community foundations, and nonprofits to enable change-makers to make the world a better place for all.

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