Placing Donors, Nonprofits, and Communities on Equal Footing

To the Editor:

Dan Goldenberg’s op-ed — “My Organization Nixed Trust-Based Philanthropy. Here’s What We Discovered” (January 23) — mischaracterizes trust-based philanthropy as open-ended grant making without accountability. As co-founders of the trust-based philanthropy movement, we’ve seen first-hand how its skeptics use this flawed understanding to build a case against the practice. But such critiques are a red herring to justify status-quo approaches that place donor preferences above nonprofit and community partnership.

In reality, trust-based philanthropy advocates for and contributes to greater accountability between grant makers and grantees. When grant makers break down transactional walls and replace them with trusting relationships, they become partners rather than auditors. This both demands and enables accountability that goes both ways.

Trust-based philanthropy is also geared toward achieving results. Donors have committed to the rigor of this approach because they want to see long-term benefits for nonprofits and communities. For decades, conventional philanthropy has operated as if donor-created standards are the best way to understand and measure impact. Trust-based philanthropy starts with a different yet common-sense premise: If we want to move the needle on any issue, grant-making strategies and goals should be informed by those working on and experiencing these issues firsthand.

While trust-based philanthropy is not yet the norm, a growing number of grant makers are starting to recognize its benefits, including a more nuanced understanding of how to assess impact over time. Change is complex and success encompasses variables that hard data can’t capture, such as building community resilience, offering support and development for nonprofit and community leaders, improving an organization’s health, and deepening its ties to the community.


By encouraging partnerships between the grant maker and the nonprofit, trust-based philanthropy allows for a more expansive understanding of measures of success. Donors and nonprofits can learn together about the best way to achieve impact, which in turn encourages everyone to be more strategic in achieving long-term success.

Trust-based philanthropy is still relatively nascent, so it’s too soon to make sweeping generalizations against the practice. Rather than rejecting it and other power-shifting approaches, grant makers should engage, learn, and get curious.

If philanthropy wants to address pervasive inequities, it must take a humble and collaborative approach that integrates the complementary wisdom of grant makers, nonprofits, and communities. Otherwise, it runs the risk of perpetuating the same top-down power dynamics that are threatening the integrity of democracy and societies worldwide.

Pia Infante, Senior Fellow
Shaady Salehi, Executive Director
Trust-Based Philanthropy Project


Building Trust Without Forgoing Transparency

To the Editor:

As the executive of the Honnold Foundation, which uses a trust-based approach to fund renewable energy projects in marginalized communities, I’m familiar with both the advantages and challenges of trust-based philanthropy. But I’ve also seen first-hand its power to create lasting change in the nonprofit world, which Dan Goldenberg’s op-ed completely overlooks.

Like the Call of Duty Endowment, which Goldenberg leads, our strategy emphasizes investing in long-term relationships and building the internal capacity of grantees.

However, Goldenberg inaccurately describes trust-based philanthropy as an unserious concept that assumes the “actual, measurable results of grantee work can be ignored.” He states that when his organization used trust-based funding it “made large grants without firm guidelines for what should be achieved or regular performance assessments.” From this, he concludes that “trust-based philanthropy doesn’t work.” This directly contradicts growing evidence that it’s at least as effective as traditional funding, and preferred by many nonprofits.


Like other trust-based grant makers, the Honnold Foundation takes impact measurement seriously. Rather than blindly following our grantees, we invest in what we call authentic trust, which balances transparency with accountability. We believe both donors and grantees bear the responsibility of measuring impact. This provides regular opportunities for grantee organizations to share their results and offer confidential feedback about our performance as a grant maker.

We integrate extensive, upfront due diligence with unrestricted grants. We also start with one-year grants before awarding multi-year funding to nonprofits that have demonstrated strong potential. We value equity above efficiency, long-term results over short-term gains, and authentic rather than transactional relationships. In addition to emphasizing a nuanced understanding of trust, this approach requires strategic risk-taking. Accepting occasional failures and adapting to changing circumstances are integral to success.

Trust-based philanthropy requires grant makers and their partners to acknowledge that no one holds the monopoly on expertise and that financial resources are not more valuable than lived experience. Philanthropy doesn’t have to give up rigorous evaluation in order to build strong partnerships. We just have to stop trivializing these relationships as an exchange of money for impact.

Emily Teitsworth
Executive Director
The Honnold Foundation


Listening to the Community

To the Editor:

I agree with Dan Goldenberg’s point that “... trust and accountability are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other.” Still, it’s important to ask what accountability means. Is the grantee accountable to the donor? Or is the donor accountable to the grantee?

In truth, it’s most often neither: Both are accountable to one another as well as to the community they’re trying to support. That’s why the Tides Foundation, where I’m a managing advisor, believes trust-based philanthropy is the only way for grant makers to achieve equitable futures for marginalized communities.

Although building trust takes effort, shifting decision-making power to the communities we serve helps us better understand the social issues we want to address. In doing so, we learn what underresourced communities need and the best way to meet those needs. Through this process, we also find nonprofits we trust to distribute resources appropriately.


By developing relationships with grantees rooted in trust, we become more accountable to one another. This allows us to honestly discuss successes and failures, identify ways to innovate, and ultimately have a lasting impact. It’s also how we stay up-to-date on the changing landscape in which our grantees operate, so we can provide them with resources to better withstand those changes. And since we don’t ask nonprofits to engage in ongoing, onerous evaluations, the community is served more quickly by organizations familiar with on-the-ground needs.

As one of our grantees told us of traditional grant making strategies: “This constant writing and coming back every year to apply is really burdensome. … [It] takes time away from the actual work. It’s just very unnecessary if we’re staying in touch and reporting to you. Trust us to do the work and to do it well.”

This shows us we’re on the right track.

Anne Lentz
Managing Advisor, Philanthropic Services
Tides Foundation