Building a Trust-Based Philanthropy Over the Last Two Years

Thursday September 30, 2021

By Monica Munn, Managing Director of Philanthropy at World Education Services (WES)

Two years ago, the WES Mariam Assefa Fund made its first grants to organizations working to build more inclusive economies for immigrants and refugees. We were excited to begin our journey as a philanthropic funder and were energized by our new grantee partners, though we knew that there was much for us to learn.

Since September 2019, the Fund has grown by leaps and bounds, awarding nearly US$10 million in grants and impact investments to more than 40 organizations in the United States and Canada. Our team now comprises nine colleagues, each of whom brings a wide range of lived and learned experiences that reflect the communities we support and issues we fund and who offer fresh perspectives on what philanthropy should be. Seventy percent of our team identifies as a first- or second-generation immigrant from African, Asian, European, and/or Middle Eastern countries, and over 50 percent identify as women of color.

However, only six months after we awarded our first grants, the COVID-19 pandemic descended and soon changed the world around us. Launching the WES Mariam Assefa Fund amid the pandemic and global reckoning for racial justice has fundamentally shaped who we are and who we aspire to be. The philanthropic sector too has faced increased calls to examine who holds power and how funding decisions are made. As Rodney Foxworth and Marcus Haymon wrote in a January 2021 SSIR article, “… [funders] are also being called to examine how institutional practices deepen inequality instead of dismantling it: From arduous application processes to repetitive reporting requirements, business as usual in the funding world feels more about maintaining control than sharing it.”

The past year and a half forced us to grapple with how we can leave behind inequitable business-as-usual practices. We had to be more explicit and intentional about our values and how we’re operationalizing them and be more responsive to the needs of our partners. We had to shake off expectations about the way things are done in philanthropy. As part of our commitment to being transparent about what we are learning as a new funder, I share three key reflections gleaned from the Fund’s first two years.

Reflection 1

Our No. 1 job is to support our grantee and investee partners’ success, and we can’t do that without their input. Putting our partners’ perspectives – and not our own agenda – at the center of our work has been crucial. This mindset is inspired by the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project’s guiding principles to be responsive, to solicit and act on feedback, and to provide support “beyond the check.” Our partners have told us that it is particularly valuable for the Fund to provide:

  • Additional general operating support so they can meet the evolving needs of their communities in moments of crisis. Providing this support has been particularly critical as the Fund’s partners address the threefold impacts of the pandemic, economic recession, and structural racism. For example, this year the Fund established a dedicated pool of funding for our grantee and investee partners to start or expand their vaccine equity efforts.
  • Communications support to amplify their leadership, lessons learned, and impact. Investing in our partners’ reach can help them bring in new partners, raise their visibility in regional or national conversations, and foster the replication of promising solutions. Last year, we worked with the finalists of the Opportunity Challenge to create videos that showcased their work of uplifting immigrant and refugee communities. We also offered a three-part storytelling capacity building series for all Opportunity Challenge applicants. More recently, we launched a leadership series on our blog to highlight the many inspiring immigrant and refugee leaders at our grantee and investee partners.
  • Dedicated capacity building programs. Our grantee and investee partners work on a diverse array of workforce, education, and social innovation solutions, so areas for collective support and technical assistance must be identified based on their input. For example, at a U.S. grantee partner convening in early 2021, many expressed interest in exploring how to develop worker cooperatives. To bring this idea to life, we sought out an organization with deep expertise in worker cooperatives and have since partnered with the Democracy at Work Institute to design an interactive workshop series for interested partners to learn from experts and each other on this topic.

Despite providing this support, sometimes the best way we can support our partners is by stepping back. For example, when planning a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) capacity building initiative, we heard from partners that it would be more valuable if Fund staff did not facilitate or participate in the program. Our default would have been to join the conversation so we could learn from it. However, in this instance, our team’s attendance – given our role as the funder – would introduce unhelpful power dynamics, potentially diminishing our partners’ ability to be candid in the session. Thanks to honest feedback, we adjusted our approach and are bringing on an external organization with the needed expertise to facilitate the program.

Reflection 2

Funders have extraordinary latitude to determine how they fund. We’ve learned that providing flexibility to partners from the beginning is one of the most valuable things a funder can do. The importance of providing multi-year, flexible funding is not new; the field has been calling for funders to do this for years. When we awarded our first grants in 2019, all were structured as project grants and had terms no longer than 18 months. That approach was grounded in our desire to quickly identify learnings that could inform our longer-term strategy.

We quickly learned that 18 months is rarely enough time to design, launch, execute, and capture lessons learned from a new initiative – which was the focus for many of our inaugural partners. This issue was compounded by the overwhelming pressures our partners and their communities faced in 2020 as they had to quickly revisit priorities, staffing, and capacity to meet the evolving needs of immigrant workers and communities. By the end of that year, all five of our inaugural grantee partners requested a no-cost extension or converted their grant to general operating support (GOS).

Reflecting on this, we are now working to award more GOS grants and increase our average grant term to at least two years. We’re making some progress: In 2020, 44 percent of our grants were GOS; and thus far in 2021, 47 percent of grants awarded were structured as GOS. A priority for 2022 will be setting concrete targets to continue increasing average grant length and GOS support.

The focus on flexibility has extended to our grant documentation as well. Inspired by Dimple Abichandani, executive director of the General Service Foundation, we took a close look at our grant agreement templates with legal counsel to streamline terms and requirements wherever possible. Key changes included removing restrictions on lobbying, eliminating a requirement that partners return any unspent funds at the end of a grant period, paring back reporting requirements, and simplifying sub-granting.

These changes reinforced for us that funding structures and agreements are not static. Rather, they are living processes and documents that need to be revisited and refined to ensure that they reflect our values and ongoing feedback from grantee partners.

Reflection 3

Shifting to more inclusive approaches is energizing, sometimes uncomfortable, but essential to making progress toward our larger goal of shifting power to proximate leaders, organizations, and communities. The Fund’s first grants were awarded through a simple and traditional philanthropic process: A handful of organizations were invited to apply for funding, their applications were reviewed by Fund staff and external consultants, and the WES Board approved final grant awards. Input was gathered from external experts to determine what issues to focus our first grants on, but outside of that consultative strategy development, our first round of grantmaking was rather insular.

As our team and capacity has grown, we seek to be more inclusive in how we develop funding priorities, select partners and vendors, approach decision-making, and establish targets to hold ourselves accountable to commitments on whom and how we fund. We have now experimented with four different public calls for funding ideas (with more recently launched!), leveraged external reviewers who bring diverse lived and learned experiences to help us select grantee partners, and launched our first participatory grantmaking pilot.

The more we center equity in our work and seek to shift power to our partners and communities, the more important it becomes to revisit and rethink our ways of working. In turn, we’ve learned to hold space for work to be more iterative and often to take longer.

For example, when developing the Fund’s equity, diversity, and inclusion statement and approach to gathering demographic information from funding applicants and partners, we asked for input from our current grantee and investee partners, teammates, WES Board members, and other WES colleagues, including our staff-initiated Racial Equity Anti-Oppression Committee. Their feedback raised considerations we hadn’t thought of, highlighted areas where clarity or specificity was needed, and flagged potential biases in the framing of our questions. As a result, the process to finalize these materials ended up taking a month longer than anticipated. However, it made for a final statement and data collection process that was much more thoughtful, actionable, and values-aligned than we could have developed alone.

What’s Next?

Looking ahead to 2022, here are a few examples of how we will apply these lessons in our third year:

  • Explore approaches to centering the perspectives of immigrant and refugee workers in our funding priorities. We have begun to gather data on whom we fund so that we can set concrete goals for funding proximate leaders – those who come from the communities they serve and have direct experience or knowledge of the issues they seek to address. However, there is more we can do to center proximate perspectives in determining what issues are prioritized for funding in the first place. We often ask potential grantee and investee partners how immigrant and refugee workers inform their program’s design and implementation. As a funder, we need to formalize how we ground truth and develop our strategy alongside the immigrant and refugee workers who are closest the issues we fund.
  • Invest in staff capacity. We continue to refine our understanding of what capacity and mindsets are required to implement trust-based philanthropic practices. In our experience, this partner-centered mode of philanthropy is higher-touch and can create tension between providing support beyond the check to current partners and deploying additional grants and impact investments. Growing our team where necessary, investing in mental health and wellness, adaptively managing priorities and workloads to reduce pressures, and resetting work norms are all needed in order to support our team’s wellness and ability to sustain this work in the months and years ahead.
  • Partner with other funders to transform philanthropy and impact investing. We are always seeking co-conspirators to invest with so that we can expand our collective impact, coordinate due diligence and reporting so that we reduce the ask of organizations in the field, and learn alongside as we explore new modes of philanthropy.

We are still in the early days of forming our own trust-based philanthropy. We continue to learn from other funders how they are living out their commitments to justice and equity and to listen to our grantee and investee partners to understand how we can be helpful.

As we continue our journey of supporting our partners, center equity in all we do, and shift power and resources, we look forward to transparently sharing what we learn next and would love to hear what fellow travelers are learning in their own journeys toward reshaping philanthropy.

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Thank you for your interest in the WES Mariam Assefa Fund. We’ll share updates on the Fund’s efforts, what we’re learning, and opportunities through our email list.