Achieving Equity by Extending Trust

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A new approach to philanthropy is helping build more equitable relationships between community foundations and nonprofits.

It’s long been a nonprofit truism that you can’t make the world a better place without paperwork, paperwork and more paperwork. Applying for grants is a necessary part of any organization’s existence and success, and yet stringent reporting requirements often make the traditional application process intimidating and time-consuming. But what if getting funded could be … easier? More accessible?

In recent years, this has become a goal that more community foundations are trying to achieve, using an innovative approach to grantmaking called trust-based philanthropy. This philosophy of giving aims to advance equity and rebalance the relationships between community foundations and nonprofits, by following six grantmaking practices:

  1. Give multi-year, unrestricted funding, to give nonprofits the flexibility and freedom to carry out their mission in the best way.
  2. Research potential grantees, rather than requiring the nonprofits to do the heavy lifting.
  3. Simplify and streamline paperwork to reduce the time and labor burden on nonprofits.
  4. Be transparent and responsive, in order to build relationships based in trust and mutual accountability.
  5. Solicit and act on feedback to improve your overall strategy and approach.
  6. Offer support beyond the funding check, to help build leadership skills, capacity and organizational growth.

The benefits of trust-based philanthropy are numerous: It builds equity, opening up funding opportunities to nonprofits that may never have qualified through a more traditional application process; it builds relationships that are more two-way and cooperative, compared with the old traditional grantmaker/grantee model.

“We know that there are organizations out there that are making a deep and wonderful impact in our community, but they may not have a grant writer on staff,” says Larissa Kick, HCF vice president of community grants and initiatives (CGI). “What is another way to really understand and get to these kinds of nonprofits and fund them and support them, instead of doing our usual grant process?”

In 2021, HCF created the CHANGE Grants program, with $5 million in funding from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, plus another $2 million from 665 donors statewide, with the goal of rewiring the systems driving inequity across the Islands. It became the perfect opportunity to enact some of the best practices of trust-based philanthropy, recognizing and engaging with the innate power of nonprofit organizations to make a change.

To begin with, HCF’s CGI team created a simple online application that contained only four questions, and didn’t require any additional paperwork. “Normally, we require applicants to submit a budget, financial statements, all of this paperwork for us to evaluate,” Kick says. “The goal with this new application was to have it take 15 minutes, maybe half an hour, to apply.”

Sure enough, the applications poured in, hundreds of them. The HCF team then set up 45-minute Zoom calls with each eligible applicant to learn more about each nonprofit—that’s 456 meetings in total. “There's only so much you can pick up from a formal application form,” Kick says. “If you just talk story with someone, you can get more nuance and color of what they're trying to accomplish, and you can feel the passion these nonprofits have for their community and their cause.”

The interviews also included space for the applicants to ask the HCF team questions, which led to constructive feedback and useful new information for team members.

Pursuing a trust-based philanthropic approach has already been paying off. In total, 194 grants were awarded, across all sectors of the CHANGE Framework, supporting a broad cohort of nonprofits both large and small. HCF has also gathered feedback from the CHANGE Grants program to evolve and improve the work around the CHANGE Framework and hopes to continue to incorporate principles of trust based philanthropy in our grant programs, moving forward.

“We are a funder, of course, but there’s so much more we can be doing, providing connections, building coalitions,” Kick says. “There are so many people and organizations that want to do good in Hawaiʻi, and the easier we can make it for them to do their job and be successful, it just connects directly to our mission here at HCF.”