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5 Ways Nonprofits Can be Trustworthy Partners

suspension bridge

The Trust-Based Philanthropy Project has given grantmakers a lot to think about. Their approach is a refreshing new direction that, along with other movements aimed at transforming philanthropy, is reshaping the partnerships between funders and the nonprofit organizations they support.

Foundations and grantmakers are exploring this approach, adjusting their practices in ways that align with the ideals of initiatives such as Trust-Based Philanthropy. But what can nonprofits be doing at the same time? What steps can they take to be the best possible recipients of that trust?

I have seen both sides of the philanthropic process. I can appreciate the important work being done by both funders and the funded. A lot of work needs to be (and is being) done by funders to adopt new approaches, and it is exciting to see the results. But there is also work to be done by the grantees. Based on my experience and based on what I have learned from the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project and other research, I have thoughts for how nonprofit organizations can respond.

Many nonprofits over the years have not been treated well by funders. This has understandably left them hesitant to open up, to try new strategies, or to engage with their funders as equal partners in this work. But change is happening, and I want to encourage nonprofits to be enthusiastic about future. With that in mind, I want to suggest five specific ways that nonprofit organizations can get themselves ready.


5 Ways Nonprofits Can be Trustworthy Partners

1 – Aim for mutual engagement and transparency.

Be mindful of your ongoing interactions with your funders. Make sure that each of your conversations is not solely focused on the grant, application, or deadlines. Trust-Based Philanthropy is as much about “co-creation” as anything. It’s a two-way street as you and your funders build a relationship. You bring great perspective to the table. Share your thoughts and bring ideas to your funders in a holistic way. In doing so, you are inviting your funders to join you in being co-creators of the lasting solutions we all seek to today’s challenges.

2 - Own your costs, be ready to tell that story.

Own what it truly costs to operate your organization in ways that serve both your constituents and your staff. Don’t be shy! Be ready with perspectives, data, materials, and a budget that can tell that story in ways that speak to various audiences, such as those who respond to data compared to those who respond to stories. Work with your funders to help them fully appreciate the connection between a sustainable, stable, and appropriately resourced organization and its ability to make the impact that you each desire. Your organization’s story is amazing, and sharing this information helps everyone to understand what it takes to get that amazing job done!

3 - Treat philanthropy as a partnership.

The term “partnership” is used more and more among funders as it truly embodies the goal of good philanthropy. Grant funding is not simply a paper exchange. It’s a relationship like any other. High-impact, equitable philanthropy takes hard work, and everyone has a role to play and tasks to undertake. If a funder asks for feedback on their grantmaking, for example, make sure you provide it. If a funder expects that you will be responsive to their outreach, be sure to get back to them right away if they call. If a funder wishes to shift to a more participatory grant process, be ready to devote the time to participate. You and your team might on occasion need to provide your funder with detailed program data or serve as a conduit for community input. Be prepared for that. Funders are being guided to be mindful of the burdens they place on their grantees, but nonprofits can still stand ready to be active partners in this critical work.

4 - Remember that funders are busy just like you.

Don’t forget - funders in nearly all cases are nonprofits too. Large or small, they have work to do in order to achieve their mission. Just like you, they have budgets to meet, staff to manage, impact goals to meet, boards to engage, and timelines to keep. For example, if a funder has an upcoming board meeting to make decisions on grants, they’re going to be busy getting ready for that, just like you are when your board meets. So it may take them longer to get back to you if you reach out with a question or with an item of interest.

5 - Appreciate what grantmakers are being told.

Take a brief moment and consider the guidance being provided to funders today. This builds on the first suggestion (Aim for mutual engagement and transparency.) Mutual accountability can more easily develop if both you and your funders appreciate your respective starting points. Whether it’s the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, the Center for Effective Philanthropy, or the National Center for Family Philanthropy, there is no shortage of resources aimed at helping funders to be more effective. While it need not be the most critical item on your list, paying attention to these messages might provide you with useful and actionable perspective. Shape your message or approach to demonstrate to a funder how a partnership with your nonprofit is a win-win situation.

forest and trees

The dynamic relationship that exists between grantmakers and their grantee partners is complicated, made especially so by a history that has left many nonprofits struggling with how best to engage with the funders who make much of their work possible. Working together, nonprofits and grantmakers can reshape this paradigm to one that emphasizes partnership, transparency, and accountability. These suggestions are meant to encourage organizations to pause and think about the ways they can foster a positive relationship and to be the best possible partners.


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