April 30, 2024

How Trust Drives Impact: The Philanthropic Donor-Doer Relationship Gets a Fresh Review in a New Publication

The Bridgespan Group looks to social science and for-profit investing to shed light on the range of relationships that effect the most social change—and is joined by additional voices contributing to a more nuanced discussion of “trust” in philanthropy.

BOSTON—April 30, 2024—In recent years, the conversation on “trust” has captured the attention of the social sector. There are signs of a shift in philanthropic practice, with greater calls for collaboration and grantmaking practices that recognize nonprofits’ leadership and expertise. The growing interest in this approach, however, has not come without concern about it being monolithic, risky, or too casual about getting results. A new publication, The Trust-Based Philanthropy Conundrum: Toward Donor-Doer Relationships That Drive Impact, from The Bridgespan Group explores these questions and offers a way forward.

Bridgespan Partner and Co-founder Jeff Bradach said, “In this essay, we looked to other fields—the social sciences and for-profit investing—to shed new light on the relationships between donors and doers, how we got here, and offer a more nuanced understanding of how these dynamics can help build the range of relationships that drive the most social change.” Bradach further described ways successful private equity and venture capital firms understand their own expertise and capabilities when investing, how that self-assessment guides their ongoing engagements, and how this might inform philanthropic relationships, recognizing the myriad ways the two contexts differ.

Co-author and Bridgespan Partner Kathleen Fleming added, “This piece builds on the work of many others in the field and is meant to challenge our collective thinking, add further nuance to a topic that can become highly reductive, and include an array of perspectives.” To that end, Bridgespan invited a range of voices to critique and build on their thinking in a series of response essays. They are Shaady Salehi (Executive Director, Trust-Based Philanthropy Project), Jara Dean-Coffey (Founder, Equitable Evaluation Initiative and CEO, jdcPARTNERSHIPS), Kathy Reich (Director, Ford Foundation’s BUILD Initiative), and Aaron Horvath and Micah McElroy (Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society).

Starting with a discussion of what is meant by “trust” and its role in team and organizational performance, the essay cites previous research from both in and outside the social sector that demonstrates how trust creates conditions that lead to more efficient and effective pathways to intended results.

The Trust-Based Philanthropy Project often describes trust-based practices as a deeper, values-driven approach that brings a lens of power consciousness not just to grantmaking but also to a donor’s culture, structures, and leadership. “In our minds, the fullest expression of trust-based philanthropy’s goals is when it creates space for both parties’ relative strengths and assets to fully contribute toward a shared impact objective,” said Preeta Nayak, a co-author and Bridgespan partner.

For example, the research points to observational data from nonprofit organizations that have received dollars with fewer restrictions and suggests that a shift in this direction would unleash new energy, capability, and innovation into the sector. (See Bridgespan’s own research on the impact of Ballmer Group’s large, unrestricted multi-year grants and findings from the Center for Effective Philanthropy and Panorama Global on MacKenzie Scott’s grantees, who similarly received large unrestricted grants.)

Finally, the authors talk about the huge effort required to help shift mindsets. “In sum,” said Bradach, “we encourage any funder who aspires to move toward greater trust-based practices to engage in honest self-reflection—about their own capabilities, opportunities to shift power to nonprofit leadership teams with extraordinary assets, and patterns in who gets their trust and why. We all should reckon with previously unchallenged, implicit assumptions that undermine the work of transformational social change.”

Read the full publication at https://www.bridgespan.org/insights/trust-based-philanthropy/the-trust-based-philanthropy-conundrum.


About The Bridgespan Group

The Bridgespan Group (www.bridgespan.org) is a global nonprofit that collaborates with social change organizations, philanthropists, and impact investors to make the world more equitable and just. Bridgespan’s services include strategy consulting and advising, sourcing and diligence, and leadership team support. We take what we learn from this work and build on it with original research, identifying best practices and innovative ideas to share with the social sector. We work from locations in Boston, Johannesburg, Mumbai, New York, San Francisco, Singapore, and Washington, DC.

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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.