Healthcare Foundation

Building a Foundation of Trust: Introducing the Trust-Based Philanthropy Movement

We are excited to share with you the concept of trust-based philanthropy. This approach to grantmaking is aligned with a larger movement for social justice that is challenging entrenched forms of hierarchy, exclusion, and impoverishment, and aims for a more just society where health and well-being are accessible to all. As described in the Nov. 2020 Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “Building a Trust-Based Philanthropy to Shift Power Back to Communities,” this approach aims to build a foundation of trust between funders and grantees by equalizing power imbalances and fostering equitable, mutually accountable relationships.

The Healthcare Foundation’s recent strategic planning process affirms our commitment to building a trust-oriented culture rooted in humility and deep learning. The planning process, which relied extensively on dialog and collaboration with our partners, made crystal clear the necessity of listening to and learning from the people and community-based organizations we serve. It drove home our understanding of where the necessary expertise truly resides: in the work, history, and lived experiences of our community. This approach expands decision-making structures to include trusted community members for shared agency, and results-based accountability.

The national movement for trust-based philanthropy resonates with our expressed values of community, compassion, and equity. Locally, as a member of the Sonoma County Funders Circle, we are exploring ways to invest in capacity building so that our communities can better define local problems and deploy funding in a participatory manner for the greatest impact.

The Healthcare Foundation is aligned with this effort to build equity in philanthropy. In practice this means several shifts in how we approach grantmaking, a process we began implementing in March of 2020 with our Emergency Healthcare Fund. With your support, we distributed unrestricted funds to organizations to use as they saw fit—whether that was to support staff salaries (the bulk of every service-oriented nonprofit’s budget), to pay utility bills, or to provide direct service to patients during this unprecedented global pandemic.

Through this very successful program, which distributed general operating support to dozens of local, grassroots organizations, as well as through our listening sessions with nonprofit leaders and those they serve, we learned about the dire need for unrestricted funds, and how challenging it is to obtain them. Unrestricted funds allow organizations to be nimble in an ever-changing environment. Where specific programs are prone to unpredictable trends in relevance from funding sources, general operating support can stabilize an organization to weather environmental and funding fluctuations.

For example, if an organization unexpectedly receives government assistance with a restricted purpose (such as for vaccine education), but already has restricted foundation grants for the same purpose, it may have difficulty spending those funds within the grant period, even as it finds itself unable to make payroll to keep the doors open. Providing unrestricted, general operating support represents trust in an organization and its leadership to use the funds where they are needed most to accomplish their mission.

As a result of all that we learned in our pandemic-related conversations, and coinciding with the local and national trust-based philanthropy movement, the Healthcare Foundation will continue to make unrestricted grants one of our key strategies to support organizations aligned with our values. By offering unrestricted general operating support, we demonstrate trust, and enable our partners to focus on building their capacity to meet our mutual health equity goals.

We hope this brief introduction to the movement for trust-based philanthropy resonates with you. We’ll continue to provide more information both on the movement and on ways that the Healthcare Foundation is moving toward equitable grantmaking in practice. Stay tuned in the coming months as, together with our community partners, we explore the practice and implications of trust-based philanthropy and results-based accountability. Along with our many funder colleagues throughout Sonoma County, we intend to be in dialogue with and seek inspiration from this movement to ensure we are putting trust-based values into our work and relationships, as we pursue a collective vision of eliminating health inequities in our region.

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Joel Lewis

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