Building Trust, Breaking Tradition: How Foundations Can More Effectively Respond in Times of Crisis

Thursday, October 8, 2020 - 11:20 am EDT
Megan Campbell

When the Council on Foundations published A Call to Action: Philanthropy’s Commitment during COVID-19 in March, the COVID-19 pandemic was in its early stages. Now, its impact has surpassed many of our worst fears, and an economic recession and long-standing racial injustices add to this moment of crisis. Foundations continue to strive to shift their practices across the world to improve how they work with their nonprofit partners and how to respond to crises. This blog explores how listening to communities can help global foundations respond to these challenging times, even those many miles removed from the communities they serve.

As the COVID-19 pandemic broke in March, Ethel Branch, former Attorney General of the Navajo Nation, noticed that the grocery store in Flagstaff, Arizona where she was shopping was already running low on food. She worried for the more than 180,000 members of the nearby Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation, who live on territory that’s larger than West Virginia, yet rely on just 16 grocery stores and small grocery marts. In addition to living in a food desert, many members of the Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation lack access to running water and are at higher risk to COVID-19 due to underlying health issues.

Branch worried that they would be unable to weather a pandemic without help, so in mid-March she and other Navajo and Hopi tribal members launched the Navajo and Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund. By mid-May, the COVID-19 infection rate in the Navajo Nation had surpassed that of New York state. The relief fund had raised more than $5 million for food, water and essential items for the most vulnerable members of the Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation. 

As those in the US and around the world grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, along with a worsening economic situation and longstanding racial inequities, mutual aid efforts like this have surged. They are based on an idea that is front and center in the COVID-19 pledge that more than 750 foundations have signed: “the best solutions to the manifold crises caused by COVID-19 are not found within foundations.” As Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation wrote, “we know that the communities most proximate to the problems possess unique insight into the solutions.”

Yet philanthropy often struggles to act on its conviction that the people who are closest to issues have some of the best ideas for how to address them. Only 0.4% of all philanthropic giving by large US foundations, for example, is directed to Native communities. In 2016, only 2% of international humanitarian assistance went directly to local and national actors.

In part, that may be because trust and deepening relationships are at the center of mutual aid and other community-led development, yet philanthropy has for a long time had a tense relationship with trust. Foundations placing little trust in their grantees, and grantees placing little trust in the opinions and feelings of the people they serve, have perpetuated oppressive, inequitable power imbalances around the world.

That needs to change. Building trust with the communities we want to help is increasingly urgent as foundations grapple with this moment of crisis. If foundations are going to work effectively with those communities, their members need to trust us and we need to trust them. Globally, the choice is not between well-functioning top-down institutions like government, nonprofits and foundations and robust bottom-up efforts like mutual aid and community organizing. We need both, functioning in effective, high-trust relationships with each other.

That’s why listening is so essential at this moment. It is not only a means to accessing good ideas and solutions to an unprecedented pandemic, it is also key to building the trust needed for those solutions to work. As Pia Infante of the Whitman Institute puts it, “ultimately, we build trust when we listen and act on what we hear — or at least communicate back why we cannot.”


With restrictions on face-to-face conversations, air travel and border crossings, it can be particularly difficult for global foundations that work across many countries to envision listening to their grantees and the people they ultimately serve. But feedback tools are increasingly sophisticated, and many, like Kuja Kuja, Ushahidi, Upinion, and Viamo, enable foundations and their grantees to listen directly to the people they serve from a distance. Other tools, like Keystone Accountability and Socialsuite’s COVID-19 surveys, enable foundations to understand patterns in the effects COVID-19 is having across many program partners and grantees.

Over the past five months the Rockefeller Foundation has worked with one such feedback tool provider, 60 decibels, to listen to rural electricity customers in six countries in Africa and India. Using a combination of phone surveys and in-person conversations with local surveyors, the foundation has been able to listen to approximately 90,000 last-mile electricity customers describe how COVID-19 has affected them. Their insights will inform Rockefeller’s programs and will be shared with governments, energy companies and other funders to help them address vulnerabilities that COVID-19 has caused. “We weren’t hearing the voices of those likely to be most impacted,” explained 60 decibels’ Director of Impact, Kat Harrison. “All of us are struggling; no one is having a good time. But if you are vulnerable to begin with, it is really worse.”

Trust among foundations, grantees and the people they seek to serve is critical if they’re going to confront this moment of crisis. By simply listening in a respectful, responsive way, foundations can begin to build trust. Feedback Labs offers many more free webinars, resources, brainstorming sessions and trainings that can help you listen in a way that builds deeper relationships with the people you serve.

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