The giving circle model is built on no small amount of trust: trust between members, trust between grantees, trust in collective giving.
When we approach our giving through this lens of trust, we build on preexisting social connections to amplify our collective giving. And in fact, building trust between our members and the people we seek to serve allows giving circles to fundamentally shift what is possible through our giving.
What is Trust-Based Philanthropy (TBP)?
Trust-based philanthropy is the methodology developed by the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project—a five-year, peer-to-peer funder initiative to address the inherent power imbalances between foundations and nonprofits. Though not typical foundations, giving circles should also embed these principles to redistribute power in service of a more equitable nonprofit sector and stronger philanthropic ecosystem.
Trust-based philanthropy is built on six core values: powersharing, equity, humility, transparency, curiosity, and collaboration. Giving circles already work to break down the barriers between those who give and those who receive, and centering Trust-based philanthropy practices can ensure those good intentions come to light.
In Practice: The “Big 6” of Trust-Based Philanthropy for Giving Circles
- Give multi-year, unrestricted funding. “Unrestricted” is the key word here: no strings attached funding is critical for any organization, but especially for smaller grassroots organizations. Many giving circles like to give to a particular project, but we still encourage you to give unrestricted funds with the ask of it going toward a particular project to make it easier for that organization. In the same vein, organizations that know they have funding coming in the future can aptly prepare for future work — consider building in a process for giving multi-year funding. This can make an even greater difference for your partners.
- Do the homework. Instead of having an open call for proposals with dozens and dozens of groups taking the time to apply, consider researching and nominating groups to an “invite only” process to minimize the number of groups who don’t get selected. If you are doing an open round, keep your application process very simple—your giving circle can do more research from potential partners’ publicly available information!
- Simplify and streamline paperwork. What if you only asked 5 simple questions? Or 3? Or none? This applies to final reports as well as applications. Reflect on what information is crucial for you to gather, what you actually review and make decisions against, and adjust accordingly.
- Be transparent and responsive. Be clear about your circle’s mission, membership, ideals, focus area, and pooled donation size so potential grantees understand if they are a good fit. Be responsive to groups that reach out to you with questions or grant applications. Even if they’re not a match for your giving circle, let them know why they’re not a match and what you’re looking for — this shows that you value their time, and starts a conversation that could lead to key connections for both your circle and the potential partner.
- Solicit and act on feedback. This goes for your members AND the groups you give to. At the end of each giving cycle, ask your circle members what worked and what didn’t, as well as what they’d like to see in future cycles. Do the same for your organization partners, finding out how they used your funds and what was most helpful or most restrictive about your process. And don’t just collect this feedback — actually act on your findings and make improvements for future cycles.
- Offer support beyond the check. This is where giving circles shine! Most giving circles volunteer, join boards, advocate, spread awareness and so much more with the groups that receive pooled funds. If this isn’t a current part of your giving circle, discuss how to elevate this practice.
Trust-Based Philanthropy in Action
During the inaugural We Give Summit, Philanos hosted Trust-Based Philanthropy: How Giving Circles Can Redistribute Power, featuring Talley Baratka (Impact100 Richmond), Masha Chernyak (Latino Community Foundation), Veronica Fleming (Impact100 Richmond, SisterFund), Kris Kaminishi (Washington Women’s Foundation), and Fatima M. Smith (Collective 365). Leaders shared their personal experiences and best practices for the collective giving field.
“There was a real desire to deepen our relationships within the community,” said Baratka, speaking to the origins of her circle’s decision to shift to a trust-based approach. Baratka is a member of the Richmond chapter of the Impact100 network, which has leveraged conversations with its grantees and members of the surrounding community to transform their approach to giving. “It’s great to give grants… but there was something missing. Go back and look at how you’re doing things, and think about how you could get closer and build a real relationship with your grantees.”
Veronica Fleming, a fellow member of Impact100 Richmond and a founding member of SisterFund, brought up the trust-based plan that both of her organizations developed in tandem with the community in Richmond. She mentioned an initial suspicion at the discussion table — racial and economic divides between the funders and the potential grantees began to melt away as the conversations broke down history, impact, and mission for both sides.
“Folks in the community really do lead this process,” said Fleming. “As a founding member of SisterFund, our approach was fairly traditional in some respects, but because we were African American [female] leaders of nonprofits, we were aware of two key things. One was the challenge that Black-led nonprofits face in dealing with funders — a major issue. And secondly, the challenge of capacity. So we made a decision early on to make meaningful gifts to nonprofits, and to come to know them in that process, provide mentoring, and provide capacity support.”
So, where do we go from here?
The impact of trust-based philanthropy espouses the very ideals giving circles are built on: community, collaboration, and grassroots support. Trust in our giving naturally leads to greater trust in our conversations — and when we commit to a trust-based methodology, we commit to improved communication not only between our circles and the organizations we support, but with our communities as a whole.
To that end, trust-based, unrestricted funding allows grassroots organizations to enact real change: and when we trust our grantee partners to make the most out of our shared resources, we move the needle together.
At Philanthropy Together, we encourage all giving circles to apply a trust-based philanthropy lens to their giving. Enacting small policies in circle meetings and membership can make a world of difference. To learn more about trust-based philanthropy, watch the video below.
Maggie May is a small business owner, author, and story-centric content strategist within the nonprofit sector. Maggie is the Founder and Executive Director of the agency Get Mighty Creative, as well as a co-founder and the Director of Operations for The Undercard Collective, a giving circle focused on representation in music and the arts. She is a Maryland transplant by way of Florida, Pennsylvania, Ireland, and most recently Salt Lake City, Utah. She has a passion for finding stories and telling them the way they're meant to be told.