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Trust in Philanthropy: Part Two — Removing Restrictions to Realize Results

Posted on January 27, 2021 by John Ferguson, TPF Fellow 2020/21

Editor's Note: TPF values and approaches often mirror the fundamental principles of trust-based philanthropy. Throughout this series, TPF Fellow, John Ferguson, will explore how they intersect and what it could mean for the future of the philanthropic sector should it become the operational norm, instead of the rare exception.

Continue reading John Ferguson's blog series:

The first principle of trust-based philanthropy is to provide multi-year, unrestricted funding. This principle is often met with skepticism, especially by those operating within a traditional funding model. It is much simpler to continue to fund programs yearly with an opportunity to reapply annually. Or is it?

In most cases, I would venture to guess that funders tend to fund grantees on multiple occasions throughout their existence. It is even common in some organizations to refer to their grantees as partners. If the same organizations were receiving grants over multiple successive years, isn’t that essentially the same thing? Not exactly. Without real partnership, it is just a label in name only.

What would a multi-year grant accomplish that multiple one-year grants could not? Stability. Trust. True partnership. Funding organizations over a multi-year period shows faith in the grantee to accomplish their goals, execute their programs effectively, and run their organization efficiently. It shows trust. And when that funding is unrestricted, it shows even more trust. Trust in the recipient to manage the funds properly and deploy them where needed rather than only in certain ways.

The benefit of unrestricted gifts and grants cannot be overstated. In this ever-evolving world, organizations of every type must be flexible, agile, and responsive. Unrestricted funding better positions organizations to shift quickly to meet the needs of those they serve, even if that means modifying their original approach. Having the flexibility to direct funds as needed to accomplish their objectives can be much more powerful than having one particular program funded entirely. After all, programs are simply ways in which organizations seek to fulfill their mission. The program itself is not why the organization exists, nor should it be.

When we think of funding as investing in an organization’s mission and ability to deliver mission impact, does any particular program or endeavor deserve to be singled out for support more so than the mission itself? Unrestricted, multi-year funding encourages innovation and creativity while providing the stability required for an organization (and its mission) to thrive.

While there is no direct link between this principle and how The Patterson Foundation (TPF) rolls since it operates outside of a traditional grant cycle and requests for proposals, there are commonalities in philosophy. TPF works in ways that foster wide participation and strengthens people, organizations, and communities. Here is one value that guides TPF’s approach to philanthropy:

We believe meaningful change requires commitment and persistence and encourage this by:

  • embracing new ideas that address a constantly changing world
  • undertaking philanthropic work in ways others are not doing, cannot do, or will not do
  • demonstrating integrity blended with joyful stewardship

Meaningful change requires commitment and persistence. That value stood out to me immediately upon joining TPF as a Fellow. I have always viewed philanthropy more broadly as a possible mechanism to address systemic root-cause issues of inequity in strategic and sustainable ways, not simply as a check intended to do some good for those who need it in the moment. To commit and persist, there has to be significant trust. Trust in our partners and in ourselves. And a willingness to explore, to not arrive with the answer. Rather than arriving with the answer, The Patterson Foundation believes that people, organizations, and communities are the best architects for their own future. The foundation collaborates with these groups to strengthen efforts towards achieving shared aspirations.

Shared aspirations can only be found through open communication once trust is present. Then, we can explore what is possible instead of discussing only what is wrong. And when we focus on possibilities, the entire scope of the conversation changes. Barriers become obstacles to overcome en route to creating a new reality.

And what might be possible if we looked at philanthropy through the lens of trust? Perhaps unrestricted, multi-year investments might open grantees and ourselves to new opportunities that did not exist before. Creativity. Innovation. Risk-taking. Meaningful change.

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