How One Foundation Became The First (Trust-Based) Follower
By: Philip Li, President & CEO, The Robert Sterling Clark Foundation
Editor's Note: Phil was recently interviewed about the foundation's trust-based philanthropy approach, for a piece published by The Trust-Based Philanthropy Project last week. We're cross-posting it today, and you can read the original here.
As president of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation (RSCF), Philip Li has taken RSCF in a decisively trust-based direction, bringing the foundation’s board, staff, and grantees along. In this interview, Phil shares what’s at the core of this decision, how he became a follower (in the best way), and what advice he has for other funders considering a trust-based approach to philanthropy.
In layman’s terms, what fundamentally is trust-based philanthropy? Why is it important to name “trust” at the core of this approach?
Trust-based philanthropy is about acknowledging and ceding power, which typically resides with the funder. Once you acknowledge that, you can begin to do the work of putting trust front and center. As funders, that means trusting that nonprofits will do what they say—and from that place, so much more is possible. That’s when you really honor the work and lived experience of nonprofit leaders. That they’ll do the right thing—by their community and staff.
Our role as funders is to provide resources to nonprofits and let them decide how those funds should be used. We can take concrete steps such as moving to unrestricted funding and streamlined applications—those kinds of things center trust and shift the responsibility back to us.
What defines RSCF as a trust-based funder?
One starting point many people look to is the six principles of trust-based philanthropy. I’d actually pull it back. For us, trust-based philanthropy includes the principles, but it’s really about the values we hold and how we operationalize those values. It comes from standing in a place of humility. We offer grantees a streamlined process because it’s our job to get to know them. We seek genuine feedback on our processes and tools, and on a number of fronts, grantees come back to us and we adapt. We take these steps not because we think the power dynamic will become completely level, but it’s about trying to make change that.
How did you and RSCF come to trust-based philanthropy?
Trust-based for me comes from a couple different places. Oddly enough, it started on Wall Street, where I looked holistically at companies—and made assessments based on leadership, the management team, strategy, resources and the ability to execute the plan. In essence, it was a belief, or trust, that the company was going to be able to achieve what it set out to do. Later on, I became a nonprofit ED, and a grantseeker. That’s when I experienced all the shenanigans funders put grantees through. I spent so much time with spreadsheets, where we often didn’t get the grants.
It wasn’t working. When I joined the world of philanthropy, I decided there had to be another way—a holistic approach that centered on trust. I brought this perspective to a foundation where I served as CFO. My program colleagues were dismissive, and said that wasn’t the way grantmaking was done.
When I came to RSCF, I’d been sitting with these ideas and experiences for more than two decades. I wanted to see what was possible. Pushing for general operating support was a no-brainer, and was surprisingly easy for the board to accept. Advocating for a streamlined grants process—that was viewed as a little more radical, but the board went with it.
As I worked with our staff and board internally, I looked to others in the field that were already practicing the kind of grantmaking I aspired to. I learned a lot from The Whitman Institute, from their approach to general operating support, to how they ‘simplify and streamline’ paperwork, accepting materials and applications grantees previously submitted to other funders. We asked if we could use the name “trust-based” and adopt the principles, and that’s how we became the first trust-based follower. It’s since become a partnership—with our board, our grantees, and with other funders in the field joining in helping make trust-based the norm.
What are some lessons you’ve learned as a funder in adopting a trust-based approach?
Trust-based philanthropy is rooted in values and culture. So much stems from that, and so you have to have people who are open to creating partnerships built on trust. It’s ‘trust for action’ not ‘trust for likability or friendship’, which is how it sometimes gets (mis)interpreted.
People often think that this approach lives only on the grantmaking side. We consider the whole ecosystem–how board and staff relate, how staff relate with peers, and how we relate with grantees. In order to truly work, a trust-based approach has to flow through the entire system. Our board trusts we won’t take them off a cliff. For example, when COVID hit, we were able to move quickly with how to respond. The way we work with each other—we have to be able to share ideas openly, when things are good or not.
Are there any positive—or not so positive—surprises you’ve had?
We’ve certainly had surprises along the way. For example, when we streamlined our grants processes, we had a couple of grantees who said that the shift actually made it harder for them. That pointed to a very conditioned response—and was a reminder of the philanthropy industrial complex. They actually had to ‘code switch’ to deal with us since we were the outlier, not the other way around. They were used to speaking in a particular way to most funders.
With grants management folks, when we considered updating systems, they offered us all the bells and whistles that foundations have ever asked for. Then, when we told them what we actually wanted—just an upload of something they’ve provided a funder in the past, it didn’t make any sense to them.
These everyday processes can themselves be an opportunity for funders to reconsider and rethink what information they really need. The reality is, foundations have created so many excess barriers and obstacles when we don’t really need much more than upload capacity.
On the plus side, we’ve been pleasantly surprised at the number of foundations that are adopting trust-based practices. Despite some initial push back and missteps, we’ve seen many of our peer funders reframe and reshape how they work with grantees within a trust-based approach.
Any cautionary advice for funders interested in taking on a trust-based approach?
My cautionary advice? Don’t try to be trust-based overnight and all at once. Experiment with different pieces. For example—what would it mean to receive a report from a grantee that was written to another funder? Or to receive a verbal report from a grantee? What about inviting funders to fill out their own application? There are real opportunities to streamline everywhere you look.
Another bit of cautionary advice: becoming a trust-based funder can seem daunting. Being able to acknowledge unequal power dynamics and recognize the need to change is hard. It can be tempting to point to others as the obstructors—the board, the ED, the program staff. I think taking a step back, initially, can be the best way. Starting with a values conversation among the board and staff lifts up the ways in which the organization wants to engage with its grantee partners and with each other. Translating those values into the ways in which the work is done is where the trust-based approach often emerges.
Think about what you can do to proactively push a trust-based approach forward. And know you will get push back—people won’t believe you at first. It takes time to change.
For funders new to and interested in trust-based philanthropy, where can they learn more?
There’s a lot we’ve documented about updates we’ve made to our processes so that they reflect our values and signal our trust-based approach. We have a series of blog posts documenting our experience with the six key principles. The Trust-Based Philanthropy website has great hub of resources, including a growing body of materials such as toolkits and guides (the trust-based self-reflection tool is a great place to start!). Many regional associations are hosting conversations on trust-based philanthropy-related topics—I would highly recommend checking out upcoming webinars and following up with peer funders who are already doing this work.