A historical case for trust-based philanthropy


Greg Hilditch


Like any other field of human activity, philanthropy has gone through different fashions over the years. Whether it’s impact philanthropy or participatory grantmaking – every new idea about how the wealthy should give has come with its own set of buzzwords and technical jargon, celebrity endorsements, and success stories. And, of course, every new trend has also had its detractors, rolling their eyes at the emperor’s lack of adequate clothing and bewildered by the temporary madness that has gripped their well-meaning colleagues.

So, it’s not a huge surprise to see this same treatment being given to trust-based philanthropy in a recent Alliance article by Jacobs Foundation co-CEO Simon Sommer, particularly in the wake of another blog post from Mackenzie Scott listing the latest beneficiaries of her charitable giving.

But Sommer’s focus on Scott and her approach to philanthropy is the first clue that this critique of the latest Big New Thing in philanthropy rests on a flawed premise: that trust-based giving is an ‘omnipresent’, all-conquering paradigm that threatens to undermine the entire sector.

Trust-based giving is much, much older than the ‘scientific’ approaches that have come to represent the mainstream because it taps into practices and ideas about mutual aid, respect and collaboration.

To a degree, it’s understandable that Sommer starts his argument with Mackenzie Scott[1]. (In fact, she’s the only philanthropist he mentions by name in the entire article, which is telling in itself.) Scott is by far the most high-profile proponent of a trust-based approach to giving – and is almost certainly the wealthiest. But that means that Scott’s giving is an outlier, and it shouldn’t be taken as a typical example of how trust-based philanthropy works. That, in turn, means that Sommer’s focus on how Scott is identifying and supporting grantees – the horror! She hired some consultants! – doesn’t really work as a ‘gotcha’ moment, because Scott’s giving is unlikely to be representative of how other practitioners in this fieldwork.

A diverse set of practices, not a ‘new orthodoxy’

The point here is that there is no one definition of trust-based giving. Sommer posits a ‘new orthodoxy’ but neglects to say what its tenets are – for good reason because this orthodoxy doesn’t exist. Trust-based giving is defined and practised in deeply different ways by different actors in philanthropy.

At Global Greengrants Fund, we support grassroots environmental initiatives that are designed and led by local people, providing small, flexible grants through a global advisory network of local activists and experts. In this version of trust-based giving, we transfer the power to decide what problems to tackle, and how, to the communities on the frontline of environmental change. But while this approach is fundamental to Global Greengrants Fund’s model, trust-based giving can also mean more incremental changes, whether shifting to disbursing more unrestricted and longer-term grants, simplifying the application process, or reducing reporting and due diligence requirements.

Viewed this way, ‘trust-based philanthropy’ is less an orthodoxy and more a convenient term covering a disparate set of practices – although, as we’ll see, these practices do have shared roots in something deeper and more fundamental.

A call for unbiased, data-driven, transparent philanthropy is the status quo reasserting itself

Having decried the ‘new orthodoxy’, Sommer makes the case that an ‘alternative’ model for giving is urgently needed: what he calls ‘unbiased, data-driven and transparent’ philanthropy. On face value, all of this seems pretty difficult to object to – as long as you ignore the entire history of professionalised philanthropic giving in the global north over the last fifty years.

From the development of the logical framework format by USAID administrators in 1969 to the rise of ‘impact philanthropy’ in the 1990s and 2000s, the gatekeepers of wealth have been incredibly adept at finding new tools and conceptual frameworks to ensure that their money is being spent the way they want it to be. Terms like ‘data-driven’, ‘transparent’ and ‘unbiased’ – along with ‘value for money’, ‘objective’, ‘innovation’, ‘disruption’, and a host of other buzzwords wearily familiar to the average fundraiser – are all hallmarks of these tools and frameworks, informed variously by the neocolonial paternalism of the 1950s, utopian social engineering of the 1960s and 70s, and neoliberal economics of the 1980s to present day. It is these tools and frameworks – not Mackenzie Scott’s unrestricted grants, or any of the other versions of trust-based giving – which still dominate philanthropic practice, that truly represent orthodoxy within the sector.

There is no one definition of trust-based giving.

While the precise methodologies of these more traditional approaches may differ, and while many of them have been designed with the very best of intentions, to some extent they all rest on a common set of assumptions which can be traced back to an old and very powerful concept within philanthropy: the nineteenth-century idea that charity should only benefit the ‘deserving poor’. In this worldview, inextricably linked with the birth of modern capitalism and colonialism, the holders of wealth are entitled to determine how that wealth is spent: in fact, they are the only ones who can make that call, a form of ‘enlightened self-interest’ that will help to lift the truly needy out of poverty. The flip side, of course, is the assumption that the vast majority of would-be beneficiaries are simply in it for the money: lazy, corrupt, potentially even dangerous.

What’s new is old

This isn’t to deny that there are some potentially major risks with trust-based giving, as in any other version of philanthropy – which is why even the most radical of approaches will always involve some basic due diligence in practice. But the real point here is that Sommer’s analysis overlooks the why of trust-based giving, which is ultimately about challenging and overturning the logic that continues to define how much philanthropists give. That logic, and the worldview it stems from, have successfully defended the interests of entrenched wealth and privilege for generations. The many versions of trust-based giving are all, in their different ways, attempts to tackle the privilege and power that still resides within philanthropy.

In one respect, though, Sommer is correct in his debunking of the hype around trust-based philanthropy: specifically, the idea that there is anything particularly new or innovative about the myriad of practices trust-based philanthropy includes.

In many ways, in fact, trust-based giving is much, much older than the ‘scientific’ approaches that have come to represent the mainstream, because it taps into practices and ideas about mutual aid, respect and collaboration which have strengthened the resilience of communities in every part of the world throughout history. But while trust-based giving may not be new, bringing these principles to the forefront in modern, professionalised philanthropic practice is. And it has the potential to model an alternative way of giving that is rooted in dignity and solidarity.

Greg Hilditch is Interim Executive Director of Global Greengrants Fund UK.

Tagged in: Funding practice Trust-based philanthropy


  1. ^ Global Greengrants hasn’t received funding from MacKenzie Scott, but she has supported several of their partners, including recently Prospera International Network of Women’s Funds and Samdhana Institute.

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