Equity is a Verb: Building Trust with Grantees

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While philanthropy is filled with charitable minded individuals devoted to serving others, there is no denying that philanthropy exists because of historical economic injustices.  Acknowledging this history and changing philanthropic culture can be challenging, many grantmakers are thoughtfully reflecting on the privilege of philanthropy, and the role of philanthropy in shifting power to community voices.

One example from the ECFC’s member community is explored in Grantmakers for Education (GFE) September 2022 case study on principles of effective education grantmaking:  Equity as a Verb: Lessons from and with Grantees

In that case study, Sara Slaughter, Executive Director of the W. Clement and Jessie V. Stone Foundation, shares the how and why of equity focused convenings.  She recounts how the foundation decided in 2017 to not pre-determine grantee convening topics or desired takeaways, but instead established a planning committee comprised of grantees representing each of their portfolios—early childhood, K-12, and youth development—and all geographies funded.

Sara reflects that the foundation risked “creating chaos of the Tower of Babel where each group spoke a different language, used different acronyms, and expressed different needs“, but they navigated the work with a seasoned facilitator, centering equity and co-constructing an annual convening with grantees that focused on issues most valuable to grantees in their day-to-day work tackling inequities. She also reflects on foundation characteristics that helped catalyze this culture change.

Beyond the content, the convening helped us, as funders, experience the lesson that equity isn’t only about “what” but also about “who” and “how”—which voices are heard and who is centered in decision making.


Among the key takeaways explored in GFE’s case study:

  • Realizing that equity is a verb – meaning, doing collaborative work on racial equity is multi-dimensional and ongoing, without a clear end point.
  • Entering into equity-focused conversations with grantees can feel uncomfortable for funders, who may need clear examples of how to talk about the topic of the power and privilege inherent in philanthropy and the unequal systems that helped generate the wealth on which philanthropy is based.
  • Conversely, if funders articulate social change goals with a lens of racial equity but do not acknowledge systemic and structural inequities, this can throw doubt on whether the goals sufficiently address the root causes of the problems that funders seek to address.
  • Building trusting relationships needs to happen in both directions, meaning not only do grantmakers need to exhibit trust in grantees, but also grantees need to feel trust toward grantmakers in order to achieve shared problem-solving.
  • Racial equity work, in collaboration with others, requires a shared understanding that the work is complex and that diagnoses of the problem, as well as potential solutions, may feel more ambiguous as a result. However, this understanding also may serve as a beneficial reality check on the goals and metrics proposed by funders for their grantmaking strategies.

Read the GFE Case Study:  Equity as a Verb: Lessons from and with Grantees


Sara also reflects on the experience in a Candid Philanthropy News Digest blog:  Building Trust with Grantees with “Racial Humility”, co-authored with grantee partner Derek Mitchell, CEO of Partners in Schools Innovation, which works to transform teaching and learning in the most challenged U.S. public schools to improve educational opportunities for low-income students of color.  Sara and Derek consider the concept of philanthropy sharing responsibility for convenings with grantees. What they find most essential to an ideal philanthropic partnership:

  • Radical humility, recognizing money is only part of the solution when the problem is as complex as intergenerational racialized oppression;
  • Shared purpose, holding and demonstrating commitment to the aspirational goals of grantee partners;
  • Getting proximate, problem solving side-by-side and ceding power to those who funders seek to benefit;
  • Deep commitment, in the form of financial support, thought partnership, capacity building, and allyship for the care of the grantee organization as well as their work.

Read the Candid Philanthropy News Digest blog: Building Trust with Grantees with “Radical Humility”

Photo credit: Photo by Andrew Moca on Unsplash

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