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Trust in Philanthropy: Part Three — Do the Homework

Posted on February 02, 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:
Do the Homework is the second principle of trust-based philanthropy. This principle does not refer to a potential grantees' homework but rather that of the funder. When thinking of the sheer amount of requirements for traditional grant proposal requests, it can be overwhelming, especially for organizations with less capacity. What if nonprofits had more time to deploy elsewhere rather than on homework that funders could choose to take responsibility for instead? My guess is nonprofits would have a staggering amount of productive hours that could be spent in other meaningful ways, and funders could benefit from greater efficiencies and streamlined processes.

That is exactly what trust-based philanthropy calls for—funders to Do the Homework and relieve some of the burdens from the nonprofits seeking support by sharing this responsibility. It all boils down to funders valuing the time of those organizations doing the work they wish to support. Ways in which this comes to life include:
  • Reducing or eliminating required steps for proposals
  • Leveraging public records and/or previous submissions to glean basic financial, leadership, and programmatic information without the need for repetition within the proposal itself
  • Proactively researching and building relationships with potential grantees with an eye towards long-term investment and partnership

One tangible example of this approach is The Giving Partner, an online platform containing much of the necessary organizational, financial, and programmatic information about area nonprofits as entered by the nonprofits themselves. The Community Foundation of Sarasota County uses this platform not only as a way to streamline their grant processes and requirements but also as an innovative way to help local nonprofits engage with current and prospective donors. The Patterson Foundation also requires organizations that wish to participate in its initiatives and offerings to have an up-to-date profile, eliminating additional requirements and barriers to participation.

Another brilliant example of this is the recent philanthropy of Mackenzie Scott. Her team took an intentional, data-driven approach to select 822 organizations from a pool of 6,490 nonprofits that were researched exhaustively to determine their capacity for driving impact addressing immediate human needs (especially in light of the ongoing pandemic) or systemic solutions to deeply-rooted societal problems. Based on that criteria, Scott and her advisers selected 384 organizations across various focus areas to receive significant unsolicited and unexpected gifts ranging upwards of $40MM in some cases.

"We do this research and deeper diligence not only to identify organizations with high potential for impact, but also to pave the way for unsolicited and unexpected gifts given with full trust and no strings attached," Scott said. She added that "because our research is data-driven and rigorous, our giving process can be human and soft."

Mackenzie Scott serves as a fresh and inspiring example of the potent and powerful combination of rigorous data-driven research and trust in the humans and institutions she funds. She gave away more than $4.1B in unrestricted, no strings attached funding between the 384 organizations identified through their extensive vetting process.

Her approach reminds me of The Patterson Foundation's five Catalysts for Good:
  • Connecting: To learn, share, evolve, and strengthen, we must first be connected. The Patterson Foundation provides opportunities to bring people, organizations, and communities together, strategically linking Internal Stakeholders (CEO/ED, board, staff, donors, and volunteers); External Stakeholders (people, businesses, other nonprofits, government, and the media); and Areas (local, regional, statewide, national, and global communities).
  • Learning: The time spent listening, asking questions, and exploring builds mutual understanding, and mutual understanding fosters the development of trust.
  • Sharing: The Patterson Foundation believes that important assets — including information, knowledge, skills, and expertise — strengthen the impact of initiatives when they are spread through collaboration. Sharing is the pivotal point linking the power of connecting and learning to opportunities for evolving and strengthening.
  • Evolving: "Change happens at the speed of trust" is one of The Patterson Foundation's key tenets. As confidence grows, the belief in new possibilities begins to emerge, and meaningful changes are made toward positive transformations.
  • Strengthening: The Patterson Foundation supports the efforts of people, organizations, and communities by focusing on issues that address mutual aspirations, foster wide participation, and encourage learning and sharing.

Imagine what might be possible for grantees if funders took on a similar approach. To commit to working with partners and both internal (board members, staff, CEO, volunteers, and donors) and external stakeholders (individuals, nonprofits, business, government, and media) to catalyze efforts toward achieving shared aspirations and strengthening people, organizations, and communities through Catalysts for Good. Or simply put, if funders would Do the Homework.

Nonprofits and funders alike would discover and embrace innovative ways of working, all based on trust, effective leadership, and collaboration. The entire philanthropic sector could dramatically shift should funders begin to embody the principles of trust-based philanthropy. And we would all be better for it.

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