Relationships and Trust

The importance of relationships in philanthropy is perhaps overlooked by some and undervalued by too many. A recent SSIR article titled Relational Philanthropy explores this idea. The authors, Kathleen Boyle Dalen & Tracy L. McFerrin, explore the power dynamic that is often at play between funders and donnees. They go on to explore ways that the industry can shift from a “you/me” dynamic to a more formidable “we” dynamic.”

I want to explore a couple of the ideas that have been on my own mind lately. The first is what the authors refer to as a “trust-rich” relationship. A term that I see more of these days is trust-based philanthropy. This is often a way of suggesting that the new model needs to require funders to place more open trust in the organizations they work with. What does this really mean? I believe a misuse of the idea is that funders should place more trust in the organizations they fund and stand further back from operations. While there is certainly merit in placing greater trust in the work of the organizations you fund, the idea of being further away has its own issues. If the trust-based ideas create more opportunities for organizations to have operational funding support vs program specific funding, it probably does help many operations. Where it falls short is if the funders see themselves as having only a transactional relationship in the process.

 I would argue for greater relationships that allow for these trust-rich environments. If your relationship with the grantor and grantee can be developed mutually it creates space for much more vibrant understanding of the work being pursued. It requires a mindset of learning – for both parties. It is likely that many of these more transactional relationships start and end with a misconception of what the best way forward is. If the relationship is built on mutual trust, then there is an opportunity to learn more about the current needs and challenges being faced. In our experiences, one of the ways we try to build trust is through learning. A great first step is to learn about the organization and people we are working with. Listen to them, work with them, attend their events, learn from the end users and participants of their programming. I have found that when the people we are working with see that we really want to understand who they are and why they take on the work they do, it has a huge impact on our own relationships.

Building this trust means that there is room for failure and growth on both parts. I believe an examination of a lot of practices in philanthropy don’t leave much space for reflection and growth based on failures in projects. What if projects had expectations for failure built right in? What if both parties agree that we have huge goals, but we wont be able to be perfect? – this work requires reflection, and iteration. What could these conversations look like?

In their recommendations for building trust Dalen and McFerrin have a list of areas worth exploring, the one that really resonates with me right now is psychological safety. What does it mean to feel safe? Where do we see that play out in philanthropic relationships? A positive example I can draw on is a new project we are working on to bring multiple community partners together. In this project we are working from the ground up on something new, with a collection of partners. The fact that the project is fresh has its advantages, namely that there is no history and connection to existing projects that people feel overly connected to. The newness makes part of this easier. But the organizations we are working with have been partners with us on a variety of smaller and some bigger projects over several years. Collectively we have seen some great programs and impacts, and we have seen some that felt right, but maybe didn’t land. The lesson in this is that over time we have built a relationship that demonstrates our commitment to being a partner in the process. We have shown that we are a part of this even when things aren’t perfect. Our foundation believes in innovation and taking risks in order to bring greater positive impact to the communities we are working to serve. It is near impossible to take risks with partners or ask them to take big risks in their programming and operations if they don’t believe they are safe to do it. If there is any feeling that a misstep will result in a loss of funding, or a ruined relationship then you can’t expect anyone to push into new ideas.  It is really hard to expect honesty and openness if people don’t feel safe to begin with.

As Dalen and McFerrin say, “Social connection and trust are the currency that enables growth and transformation. “

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