Funder Spotlight: Thousand Currents

November 27, 2017 //

Thousand Currents is an international development organization focused on the Global South. Their funding model is inherently trust-based, with an approach rooted in trusting the expertise of the leaders in the communities they serve. As part of our ongoing series featuring trust-in-practice, The Whitman Institute sat down with Deputy Director Solome Lemma to learn more about why they don’t use the word “grantee,” and how trust-based philanthropy enables them to advance their goals for social transformation:

Can you share more about your grantmaking approach—what you fund, and how?

We fund grassroots groups and movements that work at the intersection of food, climate, and the economy. The partners we fund are primarily led by women, young people, and Indigenous people who are often in the best position to offer solutions relevant to their communities.

We approach our grantmaking in terms of a partnership model. We do this by providing long-term general operating support, and trusting in the vision, brilliance, and leadership of our partners. Overall, it’s an approach of mutual trust, relationships, and accountability. 

We noticed that you tend to refer to the organizations you fund as “partners” rather than “grantees.” Why do you choose to frame it in this way? 

This was a deliberate choice. In our opinion, “grantee” implies a transactional relationship. Partnership demonstrates a more equitable approach, a walk that we do together.

How has your grantmaking approach evolved since Thousand Currents was founded?

The organization [previously called IDEX] was started 32 years ago by a group of Peace Corps volunteers who envisioned a different model for international development. They realized that many communities already had ideas about what could be done to address socio-economic challenges; they just needed money to do it. So IDEX was created to make project-based grants, driven by the idea that the people on the ground know what’s best for their communities.

That approach was great for its time, but it wasn’t necessarily partner-driven. Around 2000, we started thinking differently about the work. So we gradually shifted toward a more partnership-oriented model which allowed our funding to be more flexible and less transactional. And in 2012 we did an evaluation of our partners, which resulted in a new theory of change. That refined our overall focus into four areas: 1) supporting self-determination of communities, 2) building organizational resilience, 3) facilitating alliance building among our partners, and 4) informing the practice of social justice grantmaking.

What does social justice grantmaking mean to you?

In practical terms, I would define it as: grantmaking that in process and practice actually embodies what it aims to effect in the world. Social justice grantmaking understands that there is an inherent history of colonial practices within philanthropy; of the global north giving to—and imposing ideas on—the global south. We attempt to counter this history by work to shift power dynamics in philanthropy. We provide resources to directly to grassroots groups that are generally underrepresented, and we trust them to define and lead their own transformation.

You’ve mentioned “trust” quite a bit. In your opinion, what’s the role of trust in philanthropy?

Trust-based philanthropy is the only way to go if we want to effect the type of social transformation we want. If we want to create a world based on equality and justice, then we have to trust the ideas and vision of people from the communities we’re working in. We have to work in relationship with our partners and know that we are in service of their work. We must trust that they know as much, if not more than, what we funders know about solving social problems. A trust-based approach allows us to achieve our goals better than without it. 

How do you find and vet grantees without a formal application process?

We hear about partners through referrals, site visits, and direct outreach from prospective partner organizations. Usually, one of our regional program directors will do a site visit to learn more about the work and determine whether there is possibility for partnership. If the program directors think it’s a good fit, then the organization is invited into a catalyst partnership.

We use the catalyst grant as our preliminary mutual-vetting period. This is usually a 1-year grant at around $5,000, and it gives us an opportunity to get to know each other and see if we want to enter into a long-term partnership. These small grants don’t require board approval, but once we decide to move a group to a longer-term partnership, we bring in our board to advance them to the next level.

What do you look for to determine long-term funding?

The catalyst grant gives us the opportunity to learn more about an organization’s approach and vision, and to see if partnership makes sense for both sides. Ultimately, we hope to support groups with a long-term vision for social transformation, groups that are rooted in the communities they work, that ground their work within the context of a larger movement or movements , and that are willing and open to work with a foundation like ours.

How do you assess partners’ progress?

They submit a report, we undertake site visits, and program directors are communicating with partners at least once a quarter over the phone to get periodic updates.

How does Thousand Currents benefit from giving long-term unrestricted grants?

It tilts the power balance a bit by ensuring the partner self-determines the use of resources, thereby meeting its own needs instead of ours. It signals the deep trust we have in our partners and opens the door for more honest dialogue, which reinforces trust. It enables us to focus on building a relationship based on mutual trust and accountability as opposed to one based on the transaction of resources. Over time, this allows us to sharpen our analysis, sharpen our practice.

What advice do you have for funders that want to take steps toward trust-based philanthropy?

Start by looking at your practice and process and identify areas where more trust can be established. If you are giving project-based support, consider shifting to general operating support. If you require grantees to report on learning and evaluation indicators established by you, shift to having them report on their own indicators. There are concrete steps you can take. And of course, in doing any assessment of your work, start by talking to your grantees. Either one on one, or in dialogue with a group, let them know you are serious about getting their feedback and let them guide you through it. This in itself will help establish trust. Of course, if you need more support on this, The Whitman Institute and Thousand Currents are great resources too!

About this blog series: This is part of an ongoing series by the Whitman Institute, featuring foundations that practice trust-based philanthropy, i.e., approaching their decision-making and their grantee relationships in a way that acknowledges the power dynamics and realities facing nonprofits, and that invites more authentic relationships and communication. If you’d like to be considered for the series or if you have questions about taking steps toward trust-based philanthropy, email us at