Funding the South: The path forward starts with trust

Written by: Allistair Mallillin

Date: August 21, 2018

From the time I started in philanthropy, I have been on a mission to drive more resources (financial and non-financial) to grassroots organizations led by those most impacted by injustices.

Groups like Grantmakers for Southern Progress (GSP), Neighborhood Funders Group and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) are making it clear that the South and rural communities are areas most in need of these resources.

NCRP and GSP’s recent As the South Grows: So Grows the Nation report makes the case for funding these areas in a way that many funders can understand.

It states, “Between 2011 and 2015, foundations nationwide invested 56 cents per person in the South for every dollar per person they invested nationally. And they provided 30 cents per person for structural change work in the South for every dollar per person nationally.”

The South is underfunded, and structural change work in the region is drastically underfunded.

Working at a foundation committed to social justice and equity, the question is not should we fund these areas, but instead how should we fund these areas.

In our three decades of work at Common Counsel Foundation, we have found that the key to sustainable change and success is trust.

Our grant partners over the years have been at the forefront of every social movement imaginable, and it is because we trust them to do their work.

The key lesson for philanthropy – particularly in funding the South – is that trust needs to be a two-way street.

Funders need to trust that grant partners are doing meaningful work, and grant partners need to trust that funders are being accountable and advocating on their behalf.

This is even more vital in the South, where communities have experienced chronic disinvestment. Funders need to learn from the past and build foundations centered on trust.

When I want to understand what this means in practice, I think back to one of my first in-person conversations at Common Counsel Foundation.

I was tagging along with a co-worker during a visit with a grant partner up for renewal. From the start, it was clear that there was a lot of trust on both sides of the table.

Towards the end of the conversation, one of the last questions my co-worker asked was, “Do you want us to put you through for renewal?”

At the time, I thought that was a bold question, putting the fate of this grant in the hands of someone who had a vested interest in saying yes.

The grant partner said, “You know, we are good. There are a lot of other up-and-coming groups out there that have more of a need for those funds.”

I was blown away. In thinking about the interaction, the answer itself did not shock me. The shock came from the level of trust and authentic relationship that allowed that type of response to even be an option.

That grant partner could easily have said, “yes, put us through for renewal” and we would have done that. The trust was centered around a belief that one organization cannot undo centuries of harm, but needs other partners in the struggle.

This is a conversation I think back to regularly.

At Common Counsel Foundation, we are trying to build up the case to drive more structural change dollars to the South. During that process, the biggest growth edge has been finding the right philanthropic and grassroots partners with which to walk together.

More importantly, it has been developing trusting relationships rooted in a shared understanding of the scale of the issues, instead of merely a financial exchange of resources.

We have learned a lot during this process. As a national foundation trying to prioritize the South and rural communities in our grantmaking, I wanted to share some key tips on how to develop trusting relationships:

1. Admit that you do not know everything – Often, foundation staff are hired for content or field expertise. However, it is impossible for one person to know everything. To build trusting relationships, you need to be vulnerable. You need to admit that you do not have all the answers or all the knowledge.

2. Embrace discomfort and disagreements – It is okay for there to be disagreements about strategy and understanding. In fact, it is healthy and expected. To have that spark a trusting relationship, the key is having a mindset of embracing that discomfort. In any relationship, there is going to be a level of conflict. It is important to address those feelings in a way in which all sides feel safe and heard.

3. Believe the lived experiences of those on the ground – Philanthropy’s default is to only believe and trust experiences that are backed up by data and research. Academic data and research can sometimes be helpful, but often supplants the lived experiences of directed impacted communities. When we hear the lived experiences of people directly impacted by the issues we seek to address, trust that their experiences are authentic and equally as valuable as non-academic data and research.

4. Do not dangle money at the outset There is an inherent power dynamic in a funder-nonprofit relationship. For example, philanthropic staff have an easier time getting conversations with grassroots leaders (and other funders) because there is the potential for funding or financial resources. The challenge is to minimize that power. Be upfront that you want to develop a relationship to learn, and that learning will likely not lead to funding dollars. Once money is off the table, you can minimize the power imbalance and build a trusting relationship from the start.

As the saying goes, you need to move at the speed of trust. Change does not happen overnight, and grantmaking practices need to reflect that.

It is our responsibility as funders to fund over the long-term to support grant partners that can fight for structural changes. In the South – and throughout the country – the path towards social justice starts with trust. 

Allistair Mallillin is a program officer at the Common Counsel Foundation.