When it comes right down to it, being an effective philanthropist means establishing trust with the people you wish to help and the partners you’ll want and need to work with. It doesn’t matter whether that’s a sophisticated CEO of a nationwide organization or a hardscrabble leader of a struggling grassroots start-up. As human beings, we depend on levels of trust to guide us into new relationships and to see them through even when the going might get tough. And securing that mutual willingness to see things through in tough times is both the reason to establish trust and the reward for doing so.
It may seem like a complex issue, but establishing trust really isn’t that difficult. As an advisor to funders for more than 18 years, I wouldn’t be able to help my clients if we didn’t trust each other – so I’ve made a point of working to establish trust from the get-go. Here are five key things I’ve learned along the way:
Be yourself. It’s perfectly fine if you are a wealthy, privileged man who doesn’t need to work to pay the bills, navigating your way through funding projects to end homelessness. It’s also perfectly fine if you are formerly homeless and navigating your way through the privileged world of organized philanthropy. Just like dogs can sense fear, sadness or joy in their human friends, people sense authenticity. Be your authentic self, and look for and appreciate the authenticity of others.
Say what you’ll do and do what you say. Trust and dependability go hand in hand. As a funder, be crystal clear about your role, your level of engagement in the partnership, the dollar range you are willing to fund, your deadlines, expectations, and how you can help beyond simply providing funds. Once you’ve established what others can expect of you, you’ll need to follow through on what you said you would do, or provide immediate, full-disclosure updates about why you can’t meet those expectations. Although your failure to deliver may not seem like a big deal, remember the cardinal rule of crisis communications: tell the truth, tell it all and tell it first.
Be vulnerable. No one is perfect, which is why funders who are reluctant to admit when they’ve made mistakes or don’t know answers have a hard time establishing trust. There’s a kind of intimacy that comes from admitting weaknesses or failures to others, and a type of honesty that emerges when both funder and grantees explore weaknesses and failures by learning and changing together. Saying “I don’t know. How can we figure it out?” or “That was my fault. How can we learn from it and make things better?” does much more to establish trust than perfection ever will.
Be trustworthy in times of crisis. “I’ve got your back” may be the ultimate expression of trust. Knowing that your ally will stand beside you no matter what, and offer protection and assistance when the heat is on is a powerful feeling. Likewise, being there as a funder during the challenging times – providing consistent funding during a nonprofit’s leadership transition, making introductions to other funders during difficult economic times, showing up to the neighborhood center on a Saturday after there has been a tragedy, standing up among your peers to push forward important legislation – that builds trust that goes deep and can weather storm after storm.
Be patient. Building trust takes time. It means finding values and goals that you hold in common, recognizing and acknowledging the power dynamic between funder and grantee, and listening longer and more closely than you perhaps ever have before. Obviously, opening the door and declaring “Hi, I’m a wealthy white man and I’m here to help,” will not engender immediate trust. But being authentic in conversation, dependable in what you promise, vulnerable about your shortcomings, and trustworthy in times of crisis will eventually pay off in ways that will amplify the impact of your philanthropy for years and years.
Challenge of the Week: Do you need to quickly establish trust with a new partner or organization? Email me some details at email@example.com I’ll offer a few more tips to help!
“Kris’s presentation on grantmaking was one of the most valuable conference sessions I have ever attended. She fully engaged the group and made me think more strategically about our Foundation. I want to work more with her!”
~Maureen Sheehan Massaro, Executive Director, Wilson Sheehan Foundation