NRF Is Committed to Grantee Partnership

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Philanthropic organizations exist to create a better world and support positive change. Sometimes, however, common philanthropic practices perpetuate the very inequalities and social issues nonprofit organizations seek to address. This may be unintentional, but the power dynamic between a philanthropic organization and grantees can create barriers for community organizations and diminish their impact. The philanthropy sector is addressing this issue by updating practices and moving towards a trust-based philanthropy model.

Three people work together, looking at one another

Trust-based philanthropy is a reevaluation and reimagination of philanthropic work. The trust-based philanthropy movement advocates for a more reciprocal and communicative relationship between funders and non-profit organizations. The movement seeks to acknowledge the expertise within community organizations doing work on the ground and move towards a more collaborative approach to funding non-profit work. No effort to move to a trust-based approach is successful without a racial equity lens. Non-profit organizations led by people of color receive less funding and support than peer organizations with white leadership. Therefore, funders need to critically examine their own internal biases and vetting practices to ensure that historic inequities are not replicated in new funding structures.

While there are a range of ways to engage in trust-based philanthropy, there are several core principles that guide trust-based work regardless of the specific context:

1. Offer multi-year, unrestricted funding. Non-profit organizations need time to create meaningful change. Grant cycles that only last one year can add unnecessary stress and stifle longer term projects. Additionally, unrestricted funding acknowledges that non-profit leadership has expertise in their field that allows them to use grant money where it will make the most impact. It also helps leaders invest in staff retention and program infrastructure that will help the organization be sustainable over the long term.

2. Simplify reporting and paperwork. Staff at small non-profit organizations are often overworked and short on time. Burdensome grant applications and reporting requirements take time away from the actual mission work of an organization. Find ways to streamline administrative tasks and ask how grant reporting can support an organization’s goals around storytelling and data collection.

3. Provide holistic support. Financial support is crucial, but non-profit organizations often need help beyond a check. Funders can foster networking opportunities, offer professional development, and provide access to field-specific resources to help non-profits feel like they have a community of support rather than a lone financial investment to manage on their own.

4. Actively listen and solicit feedback. Too often philanthropy can feel like a top down investment that allows the funders to call all the shots. This approach is a missed opportunity to learn from grantees and improve processes, gain a new perspective on the field of focus, and develop meaningful relationships with organizations committed to similar missions. Communication between funders and non-profits should be bi-directional and funders should actively seek out conversations about how to better serve grantees.

5. Be transparent and acknowledge power imbalances. Even in a trust-based philanthropy model, funders hold a lot of power. It’s important to take that responsibility seriously by clearly establishing expectations and grant requirements. Funders should be honest about what they’re looking for and what they need so that non-profit staff don’t waste time, feel exploited, or have to scramble to meet last minute deadlines.

6. Foster collaboration and do your research. Funders and community organizations are working hard to create meaningful change. Both entities need the work of the other in order to be successful in those efforts. It only makes sense for that relationship to be collaborative, so that funders and grantees can share their knowledge and learn from each other. It’s important to note, however, that the impetus is not on community organizations to educate funders on the issues or communities they are investing in. Funders should be open to learning, but take the time to do careful research on their own without asking for more work from grantees.

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NRF cares deeply about developing reciprocal, trusting relationships with our grantees and partners. As such, we are continually looking for ways to do our work in more effective, equitable, and compassionate ways. We’ve evaluated our proposal and reporting requirements and have taken steps to streamline those processes for organizations. We have also invested deeply in holistic forms of support for grantees. Starting in 2015, NRF began offering capacity-building workshops and in 2020 launched our first peer leadership circle cohort. The peer leadership circles offer a facilitated space for leaders to press pause and take a step back to focus on their needs while connecting and building community with their peers. This allows leaders to engage in open and honest dialogue about the realities of non-profit work and leverage the collective wisdom of their peers to solve real-time challenges. Additionally, starting in 2021, NRF funds evaluation support for Outdoor Grant recipients in collaboration with researchers from North Carolina State University who are at the forefront of their fields.

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NRF also aims to offer grantees flexibility in applying grant money to their work. One such grant supports Urban Adventure Squad (UAS), a community-based outdoor learning organization based in Washington D.C. Executive Director Elana Mintz reflected on what stood out about the UAS project funded through a grant from NRF. She noted that this project was different “because of the flexibility [NRF] has allowed us in experimenting with what works best for students, teachers, and staff, and in allowing us the time to collaborate with teachers and administration on what is truly helpful and meaningful for them.” She went on to note that this level of trust and flexibility “helps future sustainability of outdoor learning.”

We have more work to do. There are so many more facets of our philanthropic mission to unpack, reevaluate, and adapt. The movement towards a trust-based model is a journey, and we’re committed to traveling the path in partnership with our grantees and partners. We’re grateful to all the community and philanthropy organizations that are choosing to walk this path with us and make us better through feedback, conversation, and collaboration.