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What Does Trust-Based Philanthropy Look Like?

“The Jane Bancroft Robinson Foundation is different from traditional philanthropic organizations. They share power and work in partnership with the individuals they support or fund.”

Lecester Johnson, CEO, Academy of Hope, Adult Public Charter School.

At the Jane Bancroft Robinson Foundation (JBRF), we champion change from the ground up by working with community members to identify their most pressing needs. Our work builds upon the legacy of Jane Bancroft Robinson, who worked extensively with marginalized communities in the District of Columbia. Today, we practice a model of trust-based philanthropy that produces tangible results, mutual satisfaction, and collaborative engagement.

What is trust-based philanthropy?

Philanthropies have historically operated through a top-down, exclusionary approach. Short-term quantifiable outcomes are prioritized over relationships and long-term change, and such actions can often perpetuate systemic inequities. Instead, trust-based philanthropy shifts power from the funder to grantees.

Implementing trust-based philanthropy at JBRF

Why should those who directly suffer the consequences of inequities be relegated to passive observers in their own communities? This profound realization fueled our commitment to invest our resources in improving health and economic outcomes for Black women. JBRF strives to understand and address how our sector has historically contributed to systemic inequities and oppression while envisioning a new standard for philanthropy.

When we implemented the trust-based philanthropy model at JBRF, our goal was to disrupt conventional grantmaking by involving community members with lived expertise in the program design and grants decision making processes.

To do this, we start by listening. We spent over two years engaging with residents, primarily Black women, and community-based organizations (CBOs) in the Ward 7 and 8 communities. Through the Black Women Thriving East of the River (BWTEotR) initiative, we worked collaboratively to identify interventions that would meaningfully reduce cancer mortality rates and create health-related career pathways for Black women. Their input has greatly influenced our strategic approach going forward.

Read more about the BWTEotR Initiative

The fundamentals of trust-based philanthropy

Through the trust-based model, we aimed to authentically engage with and empower the community members we served. Recognizing the value of their expertise, we placed their voices at the forefront, as they would be the driving force behind the health and workforce-related solutions we aimed to fund. In the process, this is what we learned to be the foundations of a trust-based approach to philanthropy:

1. Prioritize community partnership and lived experience

Communities we serve should be the architects of solutions – we must take all steps in partnership with those with lived experience. These interactions have to be inclusive and meaningful so together we can fund solutions identified by the beneficiaries themselves. We, the funders, should take the stance of a neutral convener that facilitates rather than directs.

2. Dig deep to understand the root of the problems being addressed

Grantors should actively seek to understand the root causes and underlying barriers that exist beneath the surface. Convening with residents and community-based organizations will assist in identifying the indicators that reveal the complete narrative behind disparities. It proved advantageous for us to invest in consultants who can guide conversations in the right direction and facilitate systematic, yet profoundly meaningful, dialogues.

3. People-led, community-based solutions should inform investment priorities 

Those with lived experience must drive solutions during the planning stages and remain central to the strategies and interventions implemented long-term. Ultimately, issues identified through these discussions should receive investments.

4. Pay Partners for their time

We must compensate and honor our community partners who have experienced systemic injustice and have been undervalued and underpaid for decades. As grantmakers, it is crucial not to perpetuate these injustices and to respect their time and contributions as they work to improve their community.

5. Provide long-term investment for sustainability 

It is crucial to invest in time and resources upfront if we want to achieve sustainable results. During the implementation phase, we recognized the significance of actively collaborating with community partners to establish relevant infrastructure to measure and monitor progress. As funders, we should prioritize leading funding initiatives but also seek out collaborators for long-term investment.

6. Continue learning and document successes and roadblocks 

As grantmakers, it is essential we maintain a continuous learning mindset. Documenting and sharing both successes and challenges allows us to develop frameworks that other foundations and grassroots efforts can learn from and adapt. By embracing a culture of learning, we can foster improvement and make grantmaking more equitable.

Dismantling and improving broken systems will not happen overnight, but we have learned that centering and empowering people with expertise will deliver equitable solutions.

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