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Prioritizing authentic connections through trust-based philanthropy 

A young woman shaking hands with someone during a meeting.

At the Honnold Foundation, we had been working in partnership with grassroots organizations for some time before we learned that there was a term for the kind of grantmaking we do: trust-based philanthropy (TBP). We understand this as an approach that reimagines relationships among donors, nonprofits, and communities to rebalance power dynamics and decision making, prioritizing authentic connections and mutual learning. Importantly, TBP also acknowledges that funders do not inherently have more expertise or knowledge than grantees do, and that we can only achieve sustainable impact if we work together as equal partners. 

What we learned by listening to grassroots organizations 

The Honnold Foundation works in partnership with marginalized communities around the world to expand equitable access to solar energy and develop locally relevant solutions to climate change. Our approach to grantmaking developed organically over a period of five years as we learned from grassroots organizations and adapted our practices to meet their needs. Initially, we conducted listening sessions and interviews with nonprofits and philanthropic institutions to learn about some of the best and worst practices in grantmaking to grassroots organizations, ensuring that we gathered a range of perspectives. To make the process transparent and participatory, we also asked other values-aligned organizations for feedback on our initial framework before putting it into action. We continue to implement this open feedback cycle, as it helps us ensure that HF’s fundamental approach remains rooted in trust and connection.  

In our experience, TBP is the logical result of listening to grassroots organizations, rather than a theoretical framework that grantmakers should adopt for purely philosophical reasons. TBP practices such as multi-year unrestricted funding and simplified application and reporting processes are the logical outcome of treating grantees as our partners. 

How we refined our approach to trust-based philanthropy 

Research over the last 10 years has shown that funders often cause as many problems as they solve; “funder-created obstacles” are the most commonly identified barrier to nonprofits achieving their intended impacts. TBP aims to address this sector-wide challenge by centering reciprocal relationships and balancing transparency and accountability. 

Our grantmaking is informed by TBP in the following ways: 

  • Annual open calls for proposals: We offer equitable access to funding opportunities that don’t depend on personal relationships. We realize that some of the most impactful work is being done by organizations HF might not know about. With an open call, we eliminate the need to be part of the “in” crowd to receive funding. 
  • Accessible and transparent applications: Our application form is simple, and the process is laid out clearly so applicants know exactly what to expect. We only ask for the information we need to understand the proposal and then dive deeper via phone calls. By doing so, we start to build relationships early and reduce the amount of time and energy applicants spend on their proposals, while also reducing the amount of HF staff time spent on the review process. 
  • Project-based, unrestricted, and multi-year funding: While we provide some initial project-based funding, we know that flexible funding is a must if we hope to support sustainable change. From the very beginning of our relationships, we encourage and trust these partners to use the funds for what they know they need and to adapt their projects as circumstances evolve.  
  • Reduced reporting requirements and shared metric development with grantee partners: Evaluation should help us understand what’s not working, not just what is, and it should be useful for the grantee partner as well as HF. If a metric isn’t reflective of the impact they want to make, then why collect it? By collaborating on what we measure, we make sure that the information helps all stakeholders and tells the story of both expected and emergent impacts. 

A recent evaluation of our funding to date found that our approach to grantmaking is meeting the real needs of our partners and leading to lasting impact. Ultimately, TBP is about facilitating community self-determination, helping partners envision and create the future that they want. That means we can fully embrace the impacts that result from their innovative efforts, even when they aren’t what we anticipated.  

Going the distance adapting trust-based philanthropy 

HF’s implementation of TBP doesn’t stop with our grantmaking practices; values of trust, respect, and collaboration apply to all aspects of our work, and inform how we treat our staff as well as our external partners. We are committed to fostering an organizational culture that encourages diversity of perspective, respectful dissent, and continuous learning, both internally and externally. For example, we incorporate 360-degree feedback from staff, funders, and grant partners when making strategic decisions and conducting annual staff reviews. This helps us ensure that we are responsive and accountable to all members of the HF community.   

The progression towards adoption of trust-based philanthropy is a logical next step as many funders consider ethical and equitable frameworks for pursuing widespread impact, and a natural companion to some of the other dominant trends in philanthropy, especially the call for “big bet” investment. Over the past five years, HF has significantly increased our grassroots funding and expanded our network of partners to over 60 organizations working to advance human welfare and environmental conservation around the world. As our work scales, we continue to be guided by the core beliefs that our partners are the experts in their local context, and that sustainable solutions are best created by and for communities themselves.  

Photo credit: SDI Productions via Getty Images


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