Trust has become an important concept in global development philanthropy, but we need to really understand it before we preach it. Indeed, sector discussions on the subject can risk stopping short of addressing important questions that are critical to the concept as a whole.

Here are some starters: Why, in ‘traditional’ global development philanthropy is trust the privilege of donors with power and money? Also, why must grantees and non-profits earn trust in exchange for capital? And why do only some non-profits engender the trust of donors?

One final question: Why do so many of us in the global development philanthropy sector apparently find it so hard to place our trust in the very communities we say we want to help?

While the concept of “trust” is factoring more and more into our philanthropic lexicon, we need to continue to put it under the microscope if we are to reform global development philanthropy and make it as anti-racist, anti-colonial, anti-white supremacist/saviorist — and as effective — as it can be.

Back in 2017, Firelight started a three-year inquiry, listening deeply to communities in sub-Saharan Africa to understand how best to support them in creating lasting change and to share the insights of their leaders with the wider sector (read our report here).

What we learned suggests that trust is a big issue. First of all, for many in Global North philanthropy, community initiatives and community-based organizations can’t be “trusted” because they don’t look like international NGOs, they can’t do the work at “scale,” or they exist in situations which make us think they’ll be more exposed to corruption or donor dependence. In contrast, there’s an inclination to trust larger, Global North-based nonprofit organizations because these organizations have the resources and language to suggest that they are “trustworthy.”

So, what can we do?

We can start by understanding the hugely divergent ways in which, as Firelight’s experience and research shows, communities and community-based organizations conceptualize trust, in contrast to the version espoused by global development funders.

First of all, funders tend to trust their own instincts and research to decide what a problem or opportunity is. We’ve all done it — commissioned a report or a field scan and developed a strategy around that, rather than asking communities themselves where they believe the challenges or opportunities are the greatest for them.

Secondly, funders tend to judge organizational effectiveness (one aspect of trustworthiness) based on what’s important to them as funders, not on what makes organizations most effective in their local context for long term, systemic change. While we all (donors and community-based organizations alike) value measurable impact, reaching scale, cost-effectiveness, and replicability, community-based organizations also more deeply value that their host communities are empowered to create and sustain change on their own. They want actions to be driven by communities, to see meaningful improvement in the lives of community members, and to ensure lasting change in the systems in which the community lives.

There are also differences in how we assess an organization’s trustworthiness. While funders might look for existing donors, randomized control trials, or external evaluations as measures of trustworthiness or accountability, community-based organizations focus on how transparent they are with the community itself, how successfully they engage with local stakeholders and systems, the integrity of their leadership, and their accountability to the community around them.

Read the full article about global development philanthropy by Nina Blackwell at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.