It's Not Enough to be Trustworthy, Philanthropy Needs to be a Trusted Partner

HU’s Managing Partner, Srik Gopal, recently authored a piece exploring why trust is important in philanthropy and the actions foundations can take to build trusting relationships.

This post originally appeared on the Council on Foundations blog.

A few years ago, in my role guiding strategy and programs at the Democracy Fund, I took some time to explore the idea of “trust.” It was a construct that came up over and over again in conversations about democracy – for instance, do we trust elections to be safe and secure? What news sources can we trust? Do we still trust our institutions?

I’ve since transitioned to a role leading Humanity United, a foundation dedicated to cultivating the conditions for enduring freedom and peace. But one finding from that exploration has continued to stick with me, and I believe it has implications for philanthropy writ large. And that is the relationship between trustworthiness and trust.

Most of us have one view of the relationship – we will likely say that if Person A behaves in trustworthy (i.e., competent, reliable, transparent, consistent) ways, Person B is more likely to trust them (i.e., believe they are fundamentally “good” and demonstrate a willingness to be vulnerable with them). Turns out, that isn’t quite how the world (or more specifically, human psychology) works.

A majority of us walk into a relationship, any relationship, with a preconceived level of trust, and then we look for (mostly confirming) evidence that validates our initial notion. Person B comes into a relationship with Person A with a preconceived level of trust, and then looks at Person A’s behavior, and what they are seeing may or may not change their mind. In other words, even if Person A was trustworthy to a tee, they may not fully earn Person B’s trust.

So what does this mean for philanthropy?

First, let’s ask the question why trust is important in philanthropy. Research shows that higher levels of trust lead to a) greater confidence in trusted individuals or institutions and b) a willingness to act based on that confidence. Assuming that the ultimate goal of philanthropy is to catalyze action, trust becomes an important pre-condition.

In my career working with foundations in staff, grantee, and consultant roles, whenever I’ve mentioned trust, the response tends to be something the foundation is doing to increase its trustworthiness. For instance, ways in which the foundation is being transparent about its theory of change and indicators, conducting a Grantee Perception Survey, or setting out a clear grant application process.

Make no mistake,  these are all extremely important things to be engaged in; however, they are necessary but not sufficient to create trust. To really engender trust, philanthropic institutions need to go above and beyond being trustworthy to being trusted. We need to find ways to demonstrate to partners that we care about the things that our partners care about, and that we have the partners’ best interests at heart.

What can foundations do to be trusted partners?

So how does philanthropy go beyond markers of trustworthiness to truly build trust? Here are a few things to consider.

1.      Look more like the communities you serve: While philanthropy is increasingly working in domains of social and racial justice, movement building, and community change, foundations remain predominantly white organizations where academic credentials are valued more than lived experience. According to the Council on Foundations’ 2020 Grantmaker Salary and Benefits Report, 73% of foundation staff are white, as are 90% of those in the CEO role. A 2019 study of Board composition and compensation showed that 89% of board members are white, while only 11% identify as people of color. A 2017 report from BoardSource showed similarly alarming data on board diversity. This needs to change if we want communities to see philanthropy differently.

2.      Learn how to “accompany” grantees, not direct them: At Humanity United, we ascribe to a philosophy of “accompaniment,” which we define as a long-term commitment to walking alongside grantees and doing everything in our power to build their capacity, agency, and power over time. Practically speaking, this means providing general operating grants with minimal bureaucracy, offering multi-faceted support beyond the grant dollars, and engaging in intentional co-learning. The Trust-Based Philanthropy Project has created a set of six simple yet profound principles that serve the same end.

3.      Invest in strategic communications: Strategic communications is a misunderstood and under-utilized tool in most foundations. But learning to leverage it can help to elevate and amplify the voice of grantees, partners, and constituents, and demonstrate a foundation’s values and priorities. For instance, when we announced a series of efforts to support our communities at the onset of the COVID crisis, we tied those back explicitly to our organizational values. When we align “what we do” with “what we say” we take an important step toward building trust.

4.      Be vulnerable: Foundations cannotexpect to build trust with grantees if we don’t “walk the talk” internally in their own organizations. This means having hard conversations about race, power, and privilege internally; asking grantees and other partners for help and feedback; and creating safe spaces for vulnerability. In their 2018 report, Being the Change, FSG lays out a few considerations for foundations looking to be the change they wish to see in the world, including “mirroring internally what is sought externally.”

The bottom line is that trust is built on the integrity of our work. We are not going to do this overnight. Humanity United, like many foundations at this moment, is committed to being on a journey toward trust and inclusion, and we recognize we still have a long way to go. This is one of the reasons I’m excited to see the Council on Foundation’s new strategic direction, with an emphasis on supporting philanthropy to be trusted partner in advancing the greater good.

If we are able to build trust with grantees, partners, and constituents, we can better catalyze action in service to creating a more just, inclusive, and thriving society.