January 22, 2021
PFC Blog

Reflections on Trust-Based Philanthropy

Amanda Mayer, Program Director & COO Lawson Foundation

The idea of trust-based philanthropy is something that I’ve been contemplating a lot lately in work as COO and program director with the Lawson Foundation. It’s definitely a #trending topic in philanthropic circles, but what does trust-based philanthropy actually mean?

In an effort to deepen my understanding, last week I participated in Exploring Trust-based Philanthropy, a webinar that’s part of an ongoing series co-hosted by Philanthropic Foundations Canada and Community Foundations of Canada.

The webinar included perspectives from people from philanthropic leaders across Canada and the United States including Shaady Salehi (Director, Trust-Based Philanthropy Project), Rudi Wallace (Grants Manager, Victoria Foundation), Brittney Gaspari (Vice-President, Community Investment, Winston-Salem Community Foundation), and Corinne Korchinski-Fisher (Korchinski Family Foundation).

Here are a few reflections from the dialogue. And while I did come away with a few answers, the session actually prompted more questions for me to consider as I think about how to strengthen trust-based philanthropy in the sector, at the Lawson Foundation and within my own personal practices and approaches.

Trust-based philanthropy means dismantling systems

In addition to sharing six principles of trust-based philanthropy, Shaady Salehi offered a definition of trust-based Philanthropy that demands that we examine the inherent power imbalances that exist and have existed in the sector, and actively work to dismantle them. This definition points to the complexity of the challenge ahead of us and reminds us that many of the systems, practices and approaches to philanthropy have been built in a way that isn’t trust-based, and that they have historically – and continue to – cause harm and perpetuate inequalities.

How do I embody a trust-based approach to my work? Before thinking about new things to do, what can I/we actively STOP doing? Whose voices, perspectives and expertise do I/we privilege? How have I/we been complicit?

Being “old” or “established” isn’t an excuse for maintaining the status quo

At another point in the webinar, Brittany Gaspari shared reflections on the Winston-Salem Community Foundation, an organization that has been around for 102 years, and the challenges and opportunities that they’ve experienced as they embody a trust-based approach to their philanthropy, in her words, “moving away from the old boys club mentality.” This got me thinking about the significant number of long-lived foundations in Canada. How many of us are set in our ways? Are we too comfortable in our processes, approaches and ways of working? What would it take to shake things up? What are we afraid of losing?

Biases are real. And we must actively work to acknowledge and address them

Rudi Wallace shared some thoughtful reflections on biases. Everybody has them and it’s impossible to be unbiased. This is true for both individuals and institutions. The key is to actively (and constantly) be aware of bias and intentionally build processes, practices to acknowledge and account for our biases.

What are my biases? How do they show up in my work, in my decisions, in my relationships? What other perspectives do I need to include?

These are a few of the questions I’m holding and committing to acting upon as I continue to deepen my understanding and commitment to trust-based philanthropy. I’m keen to continue the conversation (and to taking action!) with my colleagues in the sector.

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