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#354 – Trust-An Elusive Attribute, Even in Philanthropy

October 22nd, 2019

Richard Marker

Reader Alert: This post and the next have a pretty clear political point of view.

In June, the regional association of grantmakers, of which we are members, sponsored a conference on Census2020. The challenge of every census has been to produce as accurate a census count as possible so that allocation of federal dollars and Congress can reflect real needs and proportional representation. The Census Bureau readily acknowledges that certain at-risk communities are consistently undercounted, meaning, of course, that certain wealthier – and, not surprisingly, whiter – communities are over-weighted.

Next year’s census is even more challenging and is the first where an Administration has overtly tried to politicize it. Fortunately, the Supreme Court called them on it and didn’t allow a rogue question on citizenship to be a last-minute question on citizenship. Nevertheless, the damage was done and those who have developed a distrust of the government’s actions and intentions appear likely to be reluctant to participate regardless of the status of that single question.

There are many subsets of America to which this applies. Persons of color, immigrants, Hispanic and Latino populations, Muslims, those who don’t own their own homes, non-English speakers from anywhere are only some of those identified. Recognizing how crucial these numbers are for accuracy and equity, the philanthropy community throughout the United States has mobilized to help get as close as possible to full participation. June’s conference tried hard to avoid research abstractions and to focus explicitly on “interventions that work.”

Here is the kicker, though. The conference invited panelists on whom the success of these interventions depends. They are trusted intermediaries such as clergy, community leaders, social service workers, immigrant aid attorneys, and more. What we heard was that many of them were, themselves, reluctant to push their constituents to fill out the census forms. Given this administration’s abuses of personal rights, the outrageous tactics of ICE, and the assumption that there is no such thing as confidentiality as far as the government is concerned, these influencers were not prepared to put their own credibility on the line. And while they acknowledged that there has always been some of this sentiment, there was absolute agreement that the current administration breeds a level of fear and distrust among the populations who are most in need of the resources the census will yield beyond that ever seen before. People are in hiding, if not literally certainly in their willingness to comply with anything that might identify them to the government. [A reminder that the next 10 years of government allocations will rely on these numbers!]

This level of distrust is profoundly unsettling. Many of those of us who are funders sitting in those sessions were deeply troubled. The philanthropy world can assist, enable, and support local entities but very few of us are known by or are credible to the folks in the at-risk communities so if our efforts are to succeed, we need those trusted community leaders. If they are hesitant, how can or should we use our resources to address authentic issues of equity that really matter?

This post is not to provide an answer to that question but rather to show that the “trust” issue even includes us.

Which brings me to a consultation I attended yesterday, sponsored by the same regional association of grantmakers, addressing issues facing immigrant communities and an attempt to articulate ways in which the philanthropy world can make a difference Many of the issues were re-articulation of the Census2020 conference, and migrant issues will not soon go away as we have yet to address climate enforced migration that will only grow. Only an ostrich like administration can pretend otherwise.

The last question the panelists were asked was how we funders can help. There were a number of focused financial proposals, but then their answers switched to how we should or should not behave. For example, they argued, even if and when we sponsor convenings, we should absent ourselves. These groups felt that they would be too vulnerable to expose their authentic challenges, to reveal their failures, and to admit to the implications of the consistent pattern of underfunding they face.

Put simply, they don’t trust us. No, not in the way they distrust government misbehaviors but, rather, for our inability to keep our privilege in check, our power under control, or our attempts to enforce our perceptions of what they should do. These were not unsophisticated panelists who never deal with funders all the time; in some cases, they do so with real success. Yet their sentiments were unanimous.

Many readers, I know, are scratching your heads. Hasn’t our sector bent over backwards in recent years – for example, to understand how we are perceived or to engage grantee stakeholders in our decision making? These attempts were not mentioned by any of them. Whatever we have been talking about in our conferences, in our periodicals, in our classes don’t seem to have made their way into the perceptions or real-life experience of grantees.

We are paying a price, some of our own doing, to be sure, but even more by a generation or two of dissing the efficiency/efficacy/ethics of all institutions. Like it or not, whether we are on the left or right side of the political spectrum, philanthropy is part of the power landscape and our motives are perceived to be as suspect as the rest.

I don’t want to be simplistic about any of this. There are deep systemic injustices and inequity. Many of us have, directly or indirectly, been the beneficiaries. Our roles going forward are not simple [see my subsequent post expanding on this question.] And I certainly want to acknowledge the work of so many colleagues who have tried hard to make honesty and trust possible, who have listened hard to the often sobering feedback about our affect and procedures, and who have made genuine attempts to redesign funding strategies to be more authentically responsive and participatory.

But yesterday’s session underscored how far we have to go. And I don’t just mean in our grantmaking.

A healthy civil society can only exist when there is trust. It shouldn’t be blind trust, but it does require trust earned by some institutions, some people, some sectors. We in the funding world have a particular responsibility since our funding, our advocacy, and our affirmative sustaining of institutions are indispensable. No, we cannot and must not pretend that we can do it all, that we alone can correct years of sewn cynicism, or that we can easily break down the inherent power imbalance that defines us.

We must, though, learn how to make the difference at a time when there are deep breaches in belief that any institutions have the best interests of their stakeholders at heart. We need to earn their confidence that we mean it.

No, we cannot do it alone, but it cannot and will not happen without us.

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