Trusting relationships advance philanthropy during times of crisis


Kris Putnam-Walkerly


Build trusting relationships before times get tough.

Regardless of who you’re trying to help or who your potential collaborators are, we’re all human and we need to know that we can count on people to show up and do what they say they’re going to do. In times of difficulty, relationships get tested, stress levels rise, and resources become taxed. But if you’ve spent the days, months and years leading up to this moment being a solid and reliable presence and good philanthropic partner, then you’ll be a leader people trust. And you’ll also have no shortage of allies at the ready to support you in return, making the act its own reward.

As an advisor to philanthropists for over 20 years, I wouldn’t be able to help my clients if we didn’t trust each other. Trust accumulates over time like money in a bank account. Because of this investment our work together is more honest, more effective and much more rewarding. Building trust is not complicated but it requires a commitment to get out of your office and deeply connect with people, such as nonprofit leaders, civic leaders, and the people you seek to help with your charitable dollars. Here are the five most important things I’ve learned:

1. Be patient. Let’s start with this one because it’s a dying art. With the pace of change it’s easy to get into perpetual foot-tapping mode (guilty). But, building trust takes time. Coming in as a whirl-wind savior may be quick and easy, but it won’t build the trusting relationships required to find and sustain effective solutions. What common ground do you share? Do you have the same values and goals? What about power dynamics between funder and grantee? By listening longer and more closely than you ever have before, you will actually hear what you need to know to be more effective.

2. Be authentic. Your background doesn’t matter. Whether you are privileged and wealthy and working on housing equity, or whether you’ve experienced homelessness first-hand and are helping to find solutions, what makes the biggest difference is being honest about who you are and what you know. If you aren’t who you say you are, people will see right through it and they won’t trust you. It seems counterintuitive, but if you own your lack of experience or knowledge in an area, people will actually trust you more and be more willing to work together. Then you’ll both be better equipped to identify missing knowledge or experience and find the collaborators to fill the gap.

3. Be reliable. Say what you’ll do and do what you say. Trust and dependability go hand in hand. When working in a partnership, be absolutely clear about your role, your level of involvement, your dollar commitments, your expectations, your deadlines and other support you can offer beyond funding. Once everyone knows where they stand, be sure and honor those commitments. If you have to turn somebody down, communicate quickly without withholding information as to why. Nobody likes bits of bad news in dribs and drabs.

4. Don’t be afraid to show your weaknesses. There’s no better barrier to trust than feigning perfection. Nobody’s perfect and your partners and collaborators will appreciate your ability to admit weaknesses and failures. Think about stories. The main thing that keeps us tuned in are the flaws and challenges experienced by the characters. The real hero that people want to cheer for is the one who struggles and then overcomes. So, admit that you don’t have the answers, or that you need to work together to figure something out. And when something goes wrong, letting people know you’ve screwed up or working together to make things right does much more to establish trust than pretending to be perfect.

5. Be trustworthy. If you practice this every day, things won’t feel so daunting in times of crisis when everyone is trying to move quickly and adapt to changing circumstances. Those moments also provide important opportunities to continue to prove yourself by standing up as an ally and supporter. People are slow to give their trust, but if you consistently show up, they will know that you can be counted on even when things get challenging. This could mean consistent funding when an organization is in transition or standing together to weather a controversy. In times of crisis, by being a stalwart supporter, you might be the tipping point between success and failure.

It’s becoming clearer every day how interdependent we are for better and for worse. But by taking the time to listen well, authentically own who you are, keep your word, admit your weaknesses, and stand up as a trusted ally in times of trouble, your ability as a philanthropist to effectively make change will continue to grow and it will add strength when and where it’s needed most.

Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a global philanthropy advisor and the author of Delusional Altruism.

This article was originally published by Forbes on 13 March 2021.

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