How WDN’s Grantmaking Is Building Trust

Two people of color sitting across from each other at a table, talking to one another

The trust-based philanthropy movement, championed by the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, is about “redistributing power – systemically, organizationally, and interpersonally – in service of a healthier and more equitable nonprofit sector.” The Trust-Based Philanthropy Project encourages funders to adopt “six key principles which include: multi-year unrestricted funding, streamlined applications and reporting, and a commitment to building relationships based on transparency, dialogue, and mutual learning.” 

We believe that a more trust-based approach allows us to become more effective funders, driven to collectively work towards eradicating structural inequality and eliminating the racialization of systems that uphold it. In the spring of 2021, WDN moved more than $4.2 million in funding to 44 powerhouse organizations in our most recent round of grantmaking. Here are some ways we are infusing trust into our grantmaking.

Multiyear, Unrestricted Funding

WDN is focused on funding lasting change that can be realized through innovative ideas which require diligent planning, iteration, adjustments, and scale to become sustainable and impactful. The cycle from idea to impact cannot be produced overnight or even in a year or typical grantmaking cycle. Time and trust over multiple years are the water and sunshine funders can provide to nonprofits to grow their impact. While we cannot promise multi-year grants because of our fundraising model, we are committed to making long-term investments in our grantees and to inspiring multi-year commitments from our membership. We regularly renew grants in order to give movement leaders time and space. 

For example, Black-led organizations within the Hardisty Initiative can be directly credited for a myriad of wins in 2020 – on the ground and in legislative and electoral arenas; however, Black-led organizations are still significantly under-resourced. There is a need for sustained support so they can become legacy organizations, with financial sustainability and organizational longevity. This requires continued and increased investments in organizational infrastructure, leadership development, wellness, and safety, as well as time and space for knowledge production without specific deliverables. That’s why in 2021, the Hardisty Initiative renewed support for the majority of our 2020 grantees. “When resource distribution remains in the control of funders, it is severely challenging for grassroots movements and communities to prepare for and respond to moments of crisis, let alone work to advance deep, long-term change,” Kathryn Snyder, Director of Programs & Initiatives, Women Donors Network.

Do Our Homework

Nonprofits are often required to provide significant amounts of information that is publicly available and easy to find. At WDN, the responsibility of tracking this information is on our team. WDN does not require organizations to submit a funding application – enabling grantees to do their best work. “We need to stop over-thinking, over-researching, and over-planning out of fear that the money won’t be put to good use or that we’ll get it wrong. I believe in trust-based giving. Leaders on the ground and from communities being served know best how to put resources to work,” said WDN member Jennifer Risher.

Simplify & Streamline Paperwork

At its most basic level, trust-based philanthropy is designed to empower the grant recipient to use their staff’s time and talents on mission-focused work, not grant management paperwork. We do not require grantees to submit grant reports at the end of their grant period or to be considered for a renewal grant. Instead, we offer phone calls, if grantees have the capacity, to learn more about their work. Rather than asking nonprofits to submit monthly or quarterly reports, these personal touches foster honest, brave spaces to discuss, dream and plan. Grounded by a genuine conversation, we discuss recent successes, learnings, and challenges.  

For example, when we published a newsletter about our most recent grantmaking for our members to read and stay informed on progress and impact, we were able to pepper the update with quotes from grantees, all sourced from one-on-one conversations via phone, email, and grantee publications. We didn’t need to put out an urgent request for “impact quotes” because we’ve been engaged in authentic conversations over time.  

Be Transparent & Responsive 

Because of the entrenched power dynamic between funders and grantees, we work to create a more balanced relationship. Rachel Herzig from Wellspring (formerly the Center for Political Education) said: “There is a role for funders in movement, but it’s not the frontline and it’s not direct strategy development. It is in service of movements, not directive of movements.” 

Part of that service is responding to the needs of frontline movements. We aim to center movement leaders as content experts. We are willing to flex and adapt as they learn and grow in their work, and transparency is an important part of that process. For example, our partners at Emergent Fund cede decision-making power about funding – including the strategy and criteria behind those decisions – to the very communities that funders aim to serve. Traditionally, those who have deep knowledge about an issue and formal credentials are seen as the “experts;” participatory grantmaking expands this definition to include people with lived experience as experts on issues affecting them.

Solicit & Act on Feedback

Our work will be inherently more successful if it is informed by grantee partners’ expertise and lived experience. For example, we regularly invite our grantees to our steering committee meetings to guide us on how we, as a donor-activist network, can best support their work and leadership. In our calls, in our formal and informal surveys, we regularly ask what we can do better. We listen carefully to the answers and do our best to act on the feedback. Through trusting conversations, movement leaders have encouraged us to:

  • Be great connectors
  • Move towards multi-year giving 
  • Give as much as we can 
  • Organize other donors outside WDN 
  • Trust and have confidence in the leadership on the ground

Offer Support Beyond the Check

The actions described above are also great examples of the kind of impact donors can have beyond writing a check. LaTosha Brown of Black Voters Matter said in regards to WDN’s funding and support:

“This is AMAZING! Thank you so much for supporting our work. As you know, we are currently on the road on the Freedom Tour for Voting Rights. WE LOVE WDN! Y’all have been consistent in your support not only financially but morally as well.” 

It’s the moral support that LaTosha underscores that goes beyond a check. We are humans, doing human work for other humans and ourselves. Morality and humanity can not be stripped from money. It’s all intertwined, whether it’s recognized or not. We work with our grantees to problem solve and connect them to resources while seeking opportunities to share and highlight our grantee partners’ work in our newsletter, social media, and webinars.  Additionally, we aim to lift up our partners’ work to other thought leaders both locally and nationally, often leading to recognition and other funding opportunities.

Reimagining Philanthropy 

In a world where resources are not equally distributed and philanthropy is culpable for reinforcing power imbalances that contribute to systems of inequity, trust-based philanthropy is one proactive approach funders can take to shake up the philanthropic sector for good.  Growing in trust is a process. We are not totally there at WDN, but trust-based philanthropy is one of the ways we are reimagining what it means to engage in philanthropy. 


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