April 30, 2024

Where Is the Heartbeat?

Trust is about human connection. It is about me valuing you and you me. We must become more comfortable with the unpredictability of human dynamics.

By: Jara Dean-Coffey

Not noting that we are now officially in the 60th presidential election year would be remiss. And that emotions are high might be an understatement. All of this—and more—are the backdrop to a conversation around trust and what it means when thinking about “donors and doers,” to borrow Bridgespan’s language.   

Jara Dean-CoffeyJara Dean-Coffey 
Founder, Equitable Evaluation Initiative
The overview from the unique position and perspective of Bridgespan was useful and not altogether surprising, given norms of the US settler-created philanthropic ecosystem:  

“We’ve heard fears that a lack of donor direction or control might overwhelm nonprofits, concern that trust-based giving must be riskier or less strategic, and frustration at the interpretation that in a trust-based world all donors would act the same. There’s a sense that “trust” is monolithic and requires simply giving the money and asking no questions.” 

The assumptions embedded in the fears are not new. It does not surprise, but still shocks, how deeply embedded paternalism and binary thinking are in some circles.

I’ve read this piece several times and keep searching for the heartbeat, a through line inviting me to deepen my understanding and relationship to and with trust. Phrases that gave me pause as I searched for a pulse: 

  • “trust as a rational and practical mechanism, one that mitigates risk in social systems and optimizes results”
  • “trust tends to increase efficiency, support strategic adaptation, and improve information flows” 
  • “trust is an essential ingredient for team performance and organizational results, particularly when the goal is to solve complex problems” 

What troubles me is that trust is framed primarily as important to the achievement of results with language that reinforces mindsets of yesteryear. Trust characterized as such feels mechanized and transactional, lacking both humanity and context. 

More on Trust-Based Philanthropy

Additionally, I found myself returning to: “seek to support the creation of value in the sector” in relationship to donors. I rewrote it as “donors being of value,” and a different narrative around a donor-doer relationship and trust (both noun and verb) felt like it had space to grow.  

At the end of the day, the start, and all the moments in-between, we are human with histories, identities, relationships, and experiences engaged in efforts with others. All in context. Trust is about human connection. It is about me valuing you and you me. Together we believe not only that our intentions, but also our actions, will reflect what we agreed. It is a type of accountability, co-defined. Our communications and negotiations will acknowledge the expected (not predicted) changes and different possibilities when engaged in efforts with other living creatures. We will navigate the shifts together recognizing our different positionalities, as will the systems and structures we create. 

The temptation towards technical and tactical is strong. If production and market share are core to the endeavor, it makes sense. But if it is about people and for people, then we must become more comfortable with the unpredictability of human dynamics. Moving towards a comfort with multiple truths is challenging in a sector prone to binaries and simplicity. This includes not using monolithic terms and descriptors. I suspect that there are donors for whom trust is already an essential component of their philanthropic efforts. It requires nuance.  

My relationship to and with trust is that it is both a means and end. That duality allows, in my experience, possibilities (and results) that cannot be predetermined—and it allows magic. In a time where there are unprecedented temperatures around the globe, increasing fascism (here and abroad), and reversals of human rights for many because of the rising tide of exclusionary and divisive ideologies, relationships matter more than ever.  

Trust is vital not only as a vehicle for efficiency, expedience, and effectiveness, but to our survival as a species.  

Why not start there?

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The Bridgespan Group would like to thank the JPB Foundation for its generous and ongoing support of our knowledge creation and sharing work.