Editor’s Note: The following opinion piece is from Jamie Allen Black, CEO of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, in response to a recent opinion piece from Jeannie Infante Sager.
As Jeannie Infante Sager, director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, points out in her recent Philanthropy Women article, MacKenzie Scott, the world’s most famous female philanthropist, has embraced “trust-based” philanthropy.
Yet the conversation about Scott leaves one fascinating thing unsaid: She’s female and a philanthropist, but she doesn’t give like a female philanthropist.
Research from the Women’s Philanthropy Institute shows that women tend to give in close relationship with both the organizations they support, and each other, while Scott and her team offer “minimal input” and give with “few or no restrictions.”
Scott has adopted this approach in order to recalibrate the power imbalance between funder and funded. All too often, she has written, this imbalance undermines philanthropists’ work and can even distort their mission.
She’s right, of course. At the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, where we nurture and fund Jewish women changemakers who draw on their Jewish values to lead with a gender lens, we’ve heard the horror stories. The donor who was thoroughly briefed on the grantee organization’s “pandemic pivot” yet still demanded dozens of pages of written documentation during a time when her staff was stressed to their limits and no one was working in an office with access to a printer. The family foundation whose members insisted that an organization CEO fly across the country to meet with the family and defend the need for funding — after it had already been approved. The large educational foundation whose grant didn’t cover program costs. When the executive director went back to the foundation, the program officer stated, “If you don’t want the money, others can use it.”
We don’t allow such behavior in our foundation, and we thank Scott for inspiring us to think about the more subtle ways power can be abused.
Nonetheless, we are proudly leaning into our own way of doing the work, which we call “relationship-based philanthropy.” We operate by connecting two groups of women who might otherwise struggle to find each other. Women with money, time, and/or expertise to give want to reach the women who are channeling their passion to make social impact. Women with a mission to change the world want to reach the women who can help them achieve it. Together, we are both so much more powerful.
Like the leaders we support, our work at JWFNY is informed by our Jewish values. One of our sources of inspiration is Martin Buber, the philosopher and theologian who posited in I and Thou, a book published in 1923, that relationships are humanity’s most profound sources of meaning. “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them,” Buber wrote.
Trust-based philanthropy aims to “redistribute power” to those who are closer to the issues non-profit work seeks to address. That practice centers the grantee partner, which is important, and long overdue. But it can also turn our work into a lonely endeavor, for both grantee and funder. As impactful as it can be to offer funding with no burdensome strings attached, a collaborative partnership can elevate both the grantee and the people she is serving.
In relationship-based philanthropy, we try to lift those burdens, as well. Our application form is very simple. Goals for the year are identified in an intimate, warm conversation. The women we support receive unrestricted funding and professional development opportunities. We also introduce them to as many supporters as we can — highlighting them in programs, giving each a public forum to share her work with hundreds of prospective donors and partners. This is how we “center” the grantee partners — in relationships with other grantees and donors.
We want to undermine the fallacy that either participant in that relationship is inherently more important or worthy than the other. We don’t ignore the fact that power and money exist. On the contrary, we acknowledge those dynamics and work with them in the relationship between donor and grantee. Through that relationship, we address the power dynamics at the heart of philanthropy.
For example: Last week, I was moved to convene a group of organizational leaders to support a visionary female CEO who was struggling. I found myself pulling back because I worried that the CEO might see my offer as a “funder request” rather than simply an offer of support from me as a sister organizational leader. Instead of calling the CEO myself, I asked a third party to offer the suggestion.
Relationships are messy. Power ebbs and flows between each party, even when both are pursuing the same goal. And, in all relationships, the person who holds more power at any given time is responsible for ensuring the success of the one who doesn’t. In this way, donors can be a safety net for grantee partners.
“Trust-based philanthropy” establishes that the donor trusts the grantee, but shouldn’t the grantee enjoy the privilege of trusting the donor? A relationship is there when things get hard. What if the grantee is struggling? What if something goes wrong? She may very well feel reluctant to ask for help — after all, she’s being trusted to succeed with the funding. In our work, we know when our grantees encounter problems, because they tell us. Then we work together to solve them.
Many of our grantees dream of being trusted by MacKenzie Scott and other donors who have embraced that style of philanthropy. However, it’s important to create a space for grantees who need and want healthy, respectful support from and interactions with donors. It is possible, and it is inspirational, and Martin Buber has advice for us here, too: “We cannot avoid using power, so let us, cautious in diction and mighty in contradiction, love powerfully.”
Jamie Allen Black is the CEO of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York.