A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Trust Is Essential to Changemaking; Funders Must Take the First Step

In any group or in any relationship, trust is the feeling that allows people to work toward common purpose. Trust comes from a sense of common values and beliefs. But more than that, trust allows us to be ourselves, to be creative, use our talents and skills, and take risks. Where there is trust, we feel empowered to try new things, and take advantage of opportunities.

Where there is trust, we feel safe enough to be vulnerable. This is really powerful. It means we can share challenges and problems, offer new ideas, and provide honest feedback. By being able to be honest and open, we make it more possible for problems to be addressed, and good ideas to be considered and put into action.

For all its power, trust is often elusive, difficult to build or keep.

What Creates Trust?

The foundations of trust have to do with a feeling of safety. And at organizations, a feeling of safety comes from the leaders, the people who have formal authority and power. The management expert and thought leader Simon Sinek explains (TED Radio Hour on NPR, originally broadcast May 15, 2015):

The sense of feeling safe comes first. So when we feel safe, trust will emerge. This is what the foundations of leadership really are. The reason we call someone leader, is because they choose to go first. They choose to extend trust first, even before maybe any signs have been offered that they should.

It is the willingness to express empathy before anyone else. When we assess that someone would do that, and we see that they have that integrity, and they would willingly sacrifice their interests for our lives, we cannot help ourselves. The natural human response is trust.

As human beings, if those especially in leadership positions express empathy for our well being, we reward them with our trust, and our loyalty, our love, to see that their vision and the company is advanced.

We forget that these very human things require us to sacrifice. And it can come in any form, you know, time or energy. But I think the foundation of trust really is the willingness to sacrifice for another.

Opening Up Authentic Conversations With Grantees

The lack of trust between funder and grantee remains one of the biggest barriers to impact in philanthropy. Without open, honest conversations, funders can’t learn what nonprofits really need to deliver outcomes desired by funders, grantees, and most of all—people and communities in need.

Too often nonprofits conceal their biggest needs from funders, out of fear of seeming weak or frail. But in truth, the vast majority of nonprofits in America deliver results without adequate resources, systems, staffing, training, and time to plan for the future. Without trust, the conversation, and the relationship between funder and grantee remains superficial, ignoring or avoiding the deeper issues and opportunities that can open the way for funders to truly assist and build nonprofit organizations. Without trust, the often-expressed aspiration of “partnership” cannot be attained.

A fundamental step in bridging the divide is for funders to acknowledge they have more power, and recognize that they must go first to build trust. The funder must take the first steps, and lead.

At a session on developing trust with grantees at Exponent Philanthropy’s 2016 National Conference, funders reflected on qualities and mindsets that are essential to building trust. They shared these ideas for funders:

  • Being really clear and transparent about their mission, and what they fund and don’t fund
  • Engaging grantees and making it a priority to spend time with them
  • Listening carefully, openly, and in a non-judgmental way
  • Having humility and empathy
  • Respecting the knowledge and experience of the grantee, and desiring to learn from them
  • Desiring to understand the community, issue, and field grantees are working in; this signals to grantees that the funder respects the complexity of the work, and are invested in it
  • Providing multiyear funding, general operating support, and capacity building grants
  • Allowing time for the work to bring about results
  • Coming together to reflect on the work; some funders call this “being together in process” and “working alongside grantees”
  • Building evaluation collaboratively
  • Offering to convene grantees to share experience with each other

First Steps: Invite Open-Ended Conversations

You will be surprised by how much you can learn from conversations with grantees and other nonprofits that are not about due diligence, fact finding, or evaluation. Approach these conversations with a simple curiosity and desire to learn.

Consider all organizations as valuable sources of experience, not just the wealthiest and most secure ones. Sometimes the small, scrappy, grassroots nonprofits are closest to their constituents, and can offer you penetrating insights you will not get anywhere else.

Explore different venues and settings for these conversations. Sometimes the most effective settings are neutral ones like cafes, and breakfast and lunch places. Meet with executive directors but also with program staff,  volunteers, and trustees. Avoid having an agenda. Begin by asking about their work, what they enjoy, what challenges they face. Other questions you might ask include:

  • What issues do you think are most urgent, in need of attention?
  • What important problems are being ignored?
  • What approaches are working? What isn’t working?
  • What are gaps, opportunities?
  • If you found funding to do anything you wanted, what would you do to address the problem?
  • What role can we play—as funders, and also as convenors, matchmakers, researchers, advocates?

Spend most of the time listening, and listening attentively. The more you listen, and the less you talk, the more your conversation partner will see that you are interested in their experience and perspective, and the greater the potential for trust. Also—the less you talk, the more you will learn!

As you listen, ask clarifying questions to make sure you understand the full story. These questions also signal attentiveness, and your genuine interest. Avoid trying to steer the conversation in a direction you desire it to go; you will learn much more if you follow where the person is going.

It may take several conversations, but over time if you listen and make clear your desire to learn, grantees and others in your community or field may share with you what they truly need to make impact in their work.

Surprising insights will emerge in your conversations. The insights, relationships you build, and trust you develop over months and years, will illuminate leverage points where small investments of your money, time, connections, and influence can build the capacity of key organizations, and create the conditions for change in your community or field.

The potential for bold, catalytic philanthropy begins with the humblest of acts: taking time to listen, and learn.

Foundations Where Trust Is Alive Have Terrific Advantages

  • Everyone involved is clear about the organization’s purpose and goals;
  • The organization values learning, curiosity, and the building of knowledge by all;
  • Trustees, staff, and family members feel empowered to use the best of themselves and be creative. Every individual has the freedom to pursue and take advantage of emerging opportunities without having to seek permission;
  • Leaders spend less time checking, reviewing, and micromanaging–freeing themselves to focus on exploring new and emerging ideas, opportunities, and partnerships.
  • The funder is respectful of people’s time and asks grantees for only what she needs to perform due diligence effectively.
  • Funder and grantee have open and honest conversations; as a result, the funder is more likely to be responsive to real needs expressed by grantees;
  • Experimentation, learning, and discovery flourish inside the foundation, and in its work with grantees and in the community;
  • The foundation or donor is comfortable taking greater risks, and acting boldly.

Andy-CarrollSenior Program Director Andy Carroll writes resources, designs workshops, and facilitates seminars for funders. Andy also dedicates a significant portion of his time to managing our Leadership Initiative that defines, validates, nurtures, and celebrates the many ways philanthropists lead. Andy has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, and he enjoys talking with funders about their questions, interests, passions, and plans for making a difference. Follow Andy on Twitter @andycarrollexpo.

Colleen O'KeefeColleen O’Keefe is executive director of the Minnesota-based Sauer Family Foundation, whose mission is to improve the lives of disadvantaged children. Previously, Colleen served as executive director of the White Bear Lake Area Educational Foundation. Colleen has more than 15 years of experience developing and working with grant and scholarship programs for foundations, and she has had the pleasure of working with both family and community boards of directors. 

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