Cultivating Proximity and Trust in Philanthropy

April 10, 2018 //

“When it comes to donating money, whom do you trust?”

This was the headline of a recent New York Times piece by Ann Carrns that extolls the virtues of philanthropic advisers who help “idealistic” donors who may be “blind to potential faults in the groups they support.”

While we don’t deny the value of experienced consultants who help foundations navigate operational and strategic questions around their giving, Carrns’ piece completely misses the point. Beyond asserting that the naiveté and altruism of certain foundations hinders their ability to make objective decisions, the piece’s underlying argument seems to be that the best way to find trustworthy grantees is to outsource the decision-making to a third party. In short, the real issue is not having trusting relationships with your grantees, but rather with your advisers.

Despite the nuance some interviewees bring to the discussion, what’s disheartening about the article is the way it feeds into the perception that it is better to approach nonprofits from an implicit sense of distrust rather than trust. That orientation plays into different concerns about accountability, including raising the dreaded question of how much a nonprofit spends on staff and operations and linking overhead to effectiveness. That a foundation could trust nonprofits with unrestricted funding (and link that type of funding to generating impact) is not a prospect the article comes close to surfacing.

Its focus on the benefits of using philanthropic advisers begs the question: How does adding an extra layer between a funder and a grantee create the conditions for a more trusting relationship?

This question is particularly poignant this week, as TWI Co-Executive Director Pia Infante joins thousands of entrepreneurs, funders, and advocates at the Skoll World Forum to discuss the power of proximity in philanthropy. Much like our approach to trust-based philanthropy acknowledges the expertise of leaders on the frontlines, Skoll recognizes that the best way to address inequality and injustice is “to engage with, and be close to, the people and communities facing deep and persistent biases of all kinds.” And we would add that how we engage with them matters–in a spirit of service, from a place of listening and humility, and with a focus on learning rather than accountability.

Our experience has been that when we challenge the fallacy that nonprofits are inherently untrustworthy entities that must prove themselves based on imposed standards, possibilities for authentic partnership emerge. We really can embody different ways of being and doing with each other–but not if we maintain the distance and distrust that characterizes the current status quo when it comes to donating money.