Trust in Philanthropy

Opusculum 161 | 22.02.2022 | Two years of intensive and fascinating work comes to an end


About three years ago a small Maecenata team began exploring the relevance of trust in philanthropy. The title of the project Philanthropy.Insight reflects this theme. The aim would not be to write about philanthropy but rather to explore a values-based reference system of making foundations’ project and strategy choices a function of trust together with like-minded leaders from within the sector.

Today, we are coming to the end of two years of intensive and fascinating work. We owe it to the wonderful community of friends of the project, our financial supporters from Carnegie Trust UK and the Gulbenkian Foundation, the many publishers of our articles, and blogs and all those who showed interest in our endeavour to tell the story of our journey. We will be delighted if our experience and insights were to encourage others to pursue the concept of trust-driven philanthropy in the future. We are convinced it will be worth it.

Philanthropy.Insight has resulted from two distinct societal contexts (Chapter I ). When we started, calls for disruption could be heard everywhere. There was much disagreement, however, on how to manage the changes – except it seemed for recognising trust as being crucial in successful adaptation within the sector. Governments and business were well aware of the lack and volatility of trust of citizens and consumers. Foundations felt generally less concerned: Why would anyone distrust those who want to do good? The signs of growing demand for public scrutiny and questioning of philanthropy were rarely perceived in the European philanthropic sector. In the USA, there has been persistent public critique for some time now.

The Covid-19 pandemic made disruption the new normal. It forces foundations like all other public institutions and private actors to adjust to a new world. Trust is the conduit. But how to build trust in an emergency? We perceived Philanthropy.Insight as a timely vehicle to overcome the lack of knowledge and practical experience in the sector (Chapter II).

Over the last two years, we have assembled the building blocks, starting with the PI Pentagon of commitment, public purpose, relevance, performance, and accountability (Chapter III). We have analysed and communicated the multiple dimensions and partnerships of philanthropy. We have introduced the institutional and methodical infrastructure of PI, comprising of the PI Assessment Tool and the Peer Exchange platform to ensure full operability and add value to the concept (Chapter IV).

Our programme of work and the budget for the pilot phase in 2022 were ready in the summer of 2021. In the end, we were unable to mobilise an adequate number of participants and supporters. We have therefore decided to stop the project. We hope this is only a pause and not the project’s conclusion.

Rolf Alter, Rupert Graf Strachwitz, Timo Unger, February 2022

Executive Summary

In contrast to governments and corporate actors, philanthropy had been less concerned with declining levels of trust. Increasing criticism and the more frequent appearance of obstacles have changed the game. Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, trust has become a central currency within the philanthropic eco-system. Although recognising the relevance of trust for their operations is important, questions remain as to how to advance trust in practical terms.

By taking a standpoint in which trust was viewed as fundamental, but as an underrated category for global philanthropy, the Philanthropy.Insight Project focused on three major objectives: First, to increase the understanding and awareness of the role of trust in philanthropic practice. Second, to create a network of like-minded philanthropists devoted to trust-driven philanthropic practice. Third, to identify the modalities of a practical concept of trust in philanthropic practice. Its strategic approach entailed exploring knowledge and expertise as well as initiating dialogue and collective reflection to improve the practice of philanthropy vis-à-vis the resource trust.

The Philanthropy.Insight Project identified a pentagon of five overarching principles – Commitment, Public Purpose, Relevance, Performance and Accountability – to be at the core of trust-driven philanthropy. It also documented that trust influences personal and institutional relations: on the one hand as an authentic, honest intention and a willingness to be vulnerable, and on the other as reliance on competence and skills. As a result, the PI principles were turned into an assessment tool (PIAT) by breaking down the principles into qualities and introducing a questionnaire.

To render trust more precisely in practical terms, the Philanthropy.Insight Project has suggested that philanthropic trust manifests in at least three different forms: trust within philanthropic organisations, trust between actors of the philanthropic eco-system, and trust vis-à-vis the public and the private sector as well as in response to increasing public scrutiny.

Throughout the Philanthropy.Insight Project a variety of research-based publications have been issued by practitioner magazines, journals, and academic journals. In addition, several exchanges took place in-person and online with actors from the global philanthropic eco-system. A peer exchange platform was planned but couldn’t be implemented in the end.

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Rupert Strachwitz

Dr. phil. Rupert Graf Strachwitz

Vorstand der Maecenata Stiftung

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