Thinking Hard About Trust

Hilary Pearson

One of the big debates swirling around in philanthropy today is the debate about trust. Can trust really exist between funders and the organizations they fund, given the power imbalances, the different communities that funders and grantees come from, the different operating models of grantmakers and operating charities? This matters a good deal to funders who are considering trust-based philanthropy as a strategy. There are mixed views on what constitutes trust-based philanthropy. For funders, does it mean giving funds unconditionally and standing back from organizations because funders trust them to know how best to deploy them? For organizations, does it mean simplified funding application and accountability practices that build trust in the funder with whom they are in relationship? Does trust imply standing back or getting closer?

Charles Keidan, the editor of Alliance the global philanthropy magazine, wrote a recent column on trust-based philanthropy and its critics.  He evaluates the arguments for practicing trust-based philanthropy and the arguments of funders who are uneasy about this approach. One of the worries of funders in a trust-based approach is how to retain accountability for using their funds responsibly and effectively.  But as Keidan and others have pointed out, the underlying question is more about power and privilege than it is about trust. Keidan makes an important suggestion: “A good question to ask of critics of trust-based philanthropy is how willing they are to invite scrutiny of their own power – how their wealth was made, who sits on the boards, how they invest their assets and yes, how well they respect, partner and trust their grantees.” How are their own practices engendering trust?

We need to think more about what trust feels like in practice.  Who has to trust who? And on what is trust based? The German philanthropy think tank Maecenata Foundation has been thinking about trust for a while. Through their Philanthropy.Insight project, they have developed a framework that helps a funder with some penetrating questions about what constitutes trust. They have called it the Philanthropy.Insight Assessment Tool (PIAT). This tool is conceptually based on two elements of trust: trust in intention and trust in competence. It’s an interesting distinction. Both elements of trust matter if funders and recipients of funds are to trust each other. And both funder and recipient can demonstrate these elements.

The PIAT identifies five separate principles that must be considered together to establish or to assess “trustworthiness”. To develop trust in intention, there must be evidence of Commitment, Public Purpose and Relevance (which represent the emotional side of trust). To develop trust in commitment, there must be evidence of Performance and Accountability (the more practical side of trust). The PIAT has created a list of diagnostic questions for funders to ask themselves in each one of these five areas to assess trustworthiness.  These questions are ones that funders can use to think about the levels of trust within their organizations (intra-organization), among their funder peers (inter-organization) and across sectors (inter-sectoral) in relations with grantees, governments and other players in a philanthropic system.

If we use this framework to think about trust, we realize that it is much more complicated than the notion that earning trust or giving trust is simply a matter of shifting where power lies. It is more a matter of shifting practice. The developers of the PIAT, Dr Rolf Alter, Rupert Graf Strachwitz and Timo Unger, suggest that it offers an “invitation to philanthropic funders to apply the trust lens to their current strategies and programs so that they can ultimately become better at what they are doing.” In thinking deeply about their practice and being prepared to ask questions and to change, they will begin to earn the trust of staff and board members, partners and collaborators. Whether institutional philanthropy is ready for this or not in Canada is a relevant question. There is evidence of interest and of changing practice. As an example, the Lucie et Andre Chagnon Foundation in Quebec has been working on rebuilding trust with the community sector over the last five years and has been asking itself many of the questions outlined in the Philanthropy.Insight method. Other Canadian foundations are working on different aspects of the trust pentagon described by Maecenata. But it is challenging work. In Europe, Maecenata has ruefully paused its project because it was not able to rally enough participants and supporters among funders to test its approach and create a peer exchange platform. However, it has shared publicly all its analysis and thinking about trust-based philanthropy in an effort to keep the conversation going. Perhaps this is a basis for more Canadian philanthropic peer exchange and hard thinking about what trust means in philanthropy today?

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