Some reflections from a ‘trust-based funder’ in Asia: and an invitation to connect

By Nicky Wilkinson, Executive Director, Firetree Philanthropy

"Having trust in the communities and organizations you fund is essential to bridging the divide between funders and non-profits. Trust is not just one concept; rather it is a cluster of concepts that allow one to feel safe and to be vulnerable with someone, keeping your word, being loyal, maintaining integrity and discretion. Getting to know our philanthropic and grant partners on a personal level has always been the strongest and most reliable way to build trust and is an investment to fulfilling your shared vision.”

Galina Angarova, Executive Director of Cultural Survival

The above quote is from this vital recent blog by Galina Angarova

Against all the turbulence and heartbreak of 2020, greater trust and flexibility in philanthropy has been increasingly and consistently called for this year. 

This is stated both explicitly or implicitly either in large-scale Covid-19 pledges, such as the Council of Foundations pledge, the Donors and Foundations Networks in Europe pledge, the Association of Charitable Foundations Covid-19 Good Practice Funding Recommendations or in calls to action for philanthropy from civil society, such as this Open Letter to Funders from Hong Kong and FundAction’s call

There are signs that philanthropy globally is responding to these calls – for example, at the time of writing 792 funders in the US and globally had signed the Council of Foundations Covid-19 Call to Action and the UK’s 360 Giving Covid-19 Grants Tracker shows that over 366 million pounds have been made available in Covid-19 related funding. 

However, many feel that signing a pledge to provide more unrestricted giving is only the first step.  More fundamentally, it’s clear that philanthropy still has a long way to go in stepping up to these calls in terms of ensuring that communities that are most affected by Covid-19 receive the support that they need and, most crucially, in terms of addressing long-term systemic injustices, power dynamics and contradictions.  

Trust-based Philanthropy: 

Calls for increasing trust in philanthropy are not new, at least in the US. In recent years in the US the Whitman Institute and the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project coined the phrase ‘trust-based philanthropy.’ Co-Executive Director of the Whitman Institute, Pia Infante, describes this in this excellent, short video as “a dynamic approach to giving that is based in questions of who we’re accountable to and who we’re listening to.” 

The Trust-Based Philanthropy Project has framed this approach as having six key principles that help to translate the trust-based values of the project into action. For Firetree Philanthropy, these principles are fundamental to how we work and we try to manifest them in all aspects of how we show up in our interactions and relationships.  

Our experience this year is that these have been particularly valuable. As an example, our partners tell us that the fact the funding was unrestricted already gave them the flexibility to be able to pivot quickly, as needed, to best meet the needs of the communities they work with. 

From our perspective, having deep relationships and shared trust with our partners enabled us to rapidly give additional funding, where needed. This also allowed us to do our best to support in other ways too – where our partners asked us to and in line with Galina Angarova’s quote above. 

This is not to say that we have it all figured out, we certainly don’t. We are constantly learning and we try to be open about sharing that – what’s working, what’s not and what we need to do better. 

Like everyone, while our core values and approach remain the heart of what we do and how we work, we are having to adapt to the new normal too. As an example, with new people and partners, how do you build trust effectively when you can’t meet face-to-face? 

Some reflections from our experience in specific contexts in Asia: 

Firetree is based and funds in specific contexts in South and Southeast Asia and Hong Kong. Our experience is that there is much less publicly available data and research on philanthropy in Southeast Asia or other parts of Asia, compared to the US & UK1. The book, Pragmatic Philanthropy: Asian Charity Explained, provides a detailed study though, with research trends that chime with our own limited experience2

A big caveat before sharing some of these findings: of course, there is huge variation across Asia – and this reflects in philanthropy too, as the research details. One striking finding in relation to the subject of this blog is the existence of a widespread “trust-deficit” between ‘social delivery organisations’, funders, government and the wider public. 

The book identifies many complex and inter-linked reasons contributing to this including shifting legal frameworks, public scandals, variations in the level of legal transparency required by governments for non-profits, different types of relationships with governments, different motivations for giving etc. I can’t do justice to it all here but many of these we have come across ourselves and grapple with. 

The book highlights other key trends in philanthropy in Asia too and is an excellent and insightful read. The newly released Doing Good Index 2020, also from the Centre for Asian Philanthropy and Society (CAPS) team, provides further, highly detailed analysis and insights. 

This recently launched study by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation exploring ‘barriers and enablers’ in philanthropy in Greater China, India and Indonesia reflects some of the above findings. One of their findings is that there is also limited willingness among philanthropic entities themselves to come together to address common challenges. A key step to doing this, the report suggests, is the need to first build trust and relationships between philanthropic funders. 

None of this is to suggest that there aren’t philanthropic funders using trust-based approaches - as we conceive of and understand them in relation to the values and principles above - in Asia, of course, there are. Just that the limited research out there that we have come across, and our own, partial experience suggests that this is contextually different.

Going forward: 

Will Covid-19 shift philanthropic funders in Asia, particularly those that responded to regional and global Covid-19 philanthropic funding pledges, to more trust-based or flexible approaches? 

We are keen to explore these questions and so have commissioned a simple ‘horizon scan’ on this. We’re asking private philanthropic funders3 in Hong Kong and Singapore and also exploring what non-profits in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong would like to see from these funders in terms of how we fund. We will share the findings early next year. 

While we as Firetree clearly can’t change the big macro issues highlighted by the research mentioned above, (such as philanthropic/non-profit legal compliance frameworks), we can commit to playing our part through continuing to develop our trust-based approach based on feedback, openly sharing that learning and connecting with others as much as possible to learn together. 

So, for any funders working in Southeast Asia or Hong Kong that are exploring or using trust-based or flexible approaches and/or who would like to contribute to the research, so please feel free to reach out to me, I would love to connect.

 1. For example, this is a key finding in the Pragmatic Philanthropy book. There may well be extensive data/research in languages that our team don’t speak though. 

2. Firetree is a small team, we predominantly connect with partners and other funders using English (although we can also use Thai, Tagalog and Khmer) and, in our current form, we are a new philanthropic player. 

3. We define these loosely as private trusts/foundations, corporate foundations and family offices.

By Nicky Wilkinson, Executive Director, Firetree Philanthropy

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