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A Private Operating Foundation’s Perspective On Trust Based Philanthropy (Part III of III): Bringing Trust Into RSF’s Work

Trust-based philanthropy is a trend in foundation-giving that places value in lived experience and shifts the locus of grant spending control into the hands of the community organizations doing work on the ground. As discussed in Part I, because the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation is a private operating foundation, we will never undertake enough grantmaking to make trust-based philanthropy a significant part of our programming. Yet, as a nonprofit whose mission centers the ideas of economic equity, the importance of place, and the need to share natural resource rents, there are real reasons to take note of the trust-based trend and incorporate relevant elements into our work.  

The first phase of this incorporation has necessarily centered on learning; learning about the need for, and importance of, trust-based efforts; learning how they are conceived and executed; and learning of their strengths and weaknesses.  

Some of that learning, which is, to date, far from done, has been arm’s length, acquired by reading articles and LinkedIn posts from leaders in the field. But by far the most impactful learning has been afforded by entering spaces, like those created by the Climigration Network, where trust is a foundational aspect of every undertaking, communication, and collaboration. 

Conceived in 2015, the Climigration Network centers on communities in climate crisis, bringing together professionals and organizations dedicated to supporting their efforts to either adapt in place or relocate to safer locales. While everything the Network touches centers on the places and people most affected by climate change, its Next Step Cohort, which supports local interventions through funding, meeting facilitation, and the provision of technical assistance to community leaders, has the most hallmarks of formalized trust-based philanthropy. To be sure, if RSF’s climate-change grantmaking is ever re-oriented from research to community-level work, the Next Step Cohort model will be one we’ll seek to emulate or support directly.

And it was through the Network that I first met RSF’s Senior Research Associate, David Southgate. David is a Ph.D. candidate and embedded researcher living in Playa de Ponce, Puerto Rico, where he champions his community’s climate adaptation and mitigation efforts. A departure from the cobblestone streets and colorful buildings of Old San Juan familiar to most tourists, Playa is a Barrio of longtime residents, many of whom (like many others across the Island) have tenuous legal claim to the land on which they’ve lived and worked for generations.  

Sadly, Playa’s land, and the homes and businesses on it, are now regularly inundated with contaminated flood waters – disasters exacerbated by the construction of an Army Corp-constructed port nearby and the increasingly severe effects of climate change. David calls Playa home. In part because of his professional expertise, but perhaps more importantly owing to his tenacious spirit and commitment to community, he’s become the linchpin in efforts to attract much-needed funding and support to addressing climate impacts there.

How does RSF enter the picture of Playa de Ponce, a small community, hundreds of miles from our Princeton office? Only marginally, truth be told. We employ David part-time to do the work that needs to be done on the ground and then tell us (and you) about it. This is not philanthropy.  But it is trust. Trust that the work of hardening this community against the impacts of climate change needs to be done. Trust that while we, a world away from the Barrio’s reality, don’t know how to do that work, a smart person on the ground there does, and that our role can simply be one of support.

In addition to meeting David, RSF’s association with the Climigration Network has also given me the opportunity to be part of its Funding and Resources Workgroup, which focuses on identifying grants and other opportunities to support climate impacted communities. The Workgroup’s efforts have already yielded an amazingly robust index of funding sources. With those data in hand, however, it’s immediately apparent that the gaps in the funding landscape are substantial, and grantors’ selection criteria often eliminate from consideration many of the communities most in need of their support. Neither realization is new. In fact, they are painfully familiar to many people living with the realities of climate change in this country, but they set the stage for further action.  

The Workgroup’s next step is to advocate for filling climate funding gaps and raising awareness of how current sources of support are (likely unintentionally) shutting out those most in need. Of course, this work will take time and effort, and for our part, RSF is hiring an intern whose job it will be to further enhance the funding database and create community-level case studies that capture the experiences of the people on the ground, grappling with the realities of life post-climate disaster, set against a backdrop of insufficient or inaccessible funding.  

The plan is for Workgroup members to take the results of the intern’s efforts to their networks and present them at conferences and other professional convenings to raise awareness among the organizations and the individuals with capacity to change things for the better. To be sure, foundations already engaged in trust-based philanthropy will be important partners in whatever comes next, as we’ll be asking them to extend their trust to the work of our small group of Network-based volunteers.

The above mentioned efforts may not feel like much, perhaps a good start for a POF determined to intentionally center trust in its climate work. Of course, there is a role for trust beyond the realm of climate change. And happily, in a recent conversation with the Health and Environmental Funders’ Network’s Director of Programs, I realized that the Foundation’s Progress of Ideas Scholarship Program also makes use of many of the most important trust-based practices.  

RSF’s Scholarship awards are multiyear, and because they cover students’ cost of attendance (i.e. books, rent, food––literally anything students’ spend money on), those dollars are inherently “unrestricted” funds. And the Foundation’s “support beyond the check” includes virtual educational and social programming for scholars, and (what we hope are) helpful “professional boosts” along the way (things like headshots and conference support).  

RSF will soon announce its third cohort of scholars, so design of the program preceded the current work to better understand and intentionally incorporate trust-based practices. But it was gratifying to recognize that, even in the absence of awareness of this formal framework on which to build, we had incorporated many of its tenets into our scholarship program. After all, how better to support the next generation of changemakers than with awards based in trust?

As we approach our centennial anniversary next year, there is every reason to believe that RSF will maintain its private operating status, meaning that philanthropy will continue to represent a small subset of our activities. But wherever possible, we will continue to center trust and the practices and mindset of trust-based philanthropy into our programming.  

Our Progress of Ideas Grant Program is currently accepting applications, and to date, those funds have been dedicated to supporting academic-style research projects. Trust is part of the process, of course. Trust in applicants’ expertise and ability to do the work they propose. But what else might we do in the future? Could next year’s funding include one or more community-based projects, conceived to center trust? Time will tell.

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