By Zainab Salbi, Co-founder, Daughters for Earth and Casey Rogers, Founder & CEO, Telea Insights

Though the fundamentals of philanthropy are based on generosity, it operates within the same flawed power structure that has caused some of the challenges private philanthropy tries to address. People in power or living in powerful countries or circumstances are making decisions on things that impact people in other parts of the world or in different socio-economic realities without having a lived experience of what it means to be on the sharp edge of the challenge itself. Too many philanthropic leaders trust their own decision-making more than they trust the people closest to the situation they seek to improve.

The intentions are generally good. Philanthropists, after all, are mostly interested in solving problems to help create a better world. But the methodologies the philanthropic community has used often do not challenge the underlying power structure. That is why “trust-based philanthropy” has become a hot topic, albeit one much more talked about than acted upon. (A similar conversation has also started in international aid circles, where leaders, such as Samantha Power at USAID, are also wrestling with how to move away from traditional top-down power dynamics.)

So, what does it mean to challenge the philanthropic power dynamic? What role can trust play in challenging, and moving beyond, the current norm? At Daughters for Earth, we believe that trust is essential to remake philanthropy – and what we have learned from trying to turn the traditional grantmaking model upside down has been eye-opening.

Let’s start at the beginning. Daughters for Earth is a new fund and movement, launched in 2022 with Jody Allen, that aims to find, financially back and celebrate women-led climate actions. When we first started, we worked with an experienced U.S.-based philanthropic team who helped guide and structure our giving model. We worked hard to find the best nominees for grants, handheld each nominee to understand what they needed and how best to support them and vetted proposals to select the best projects. But when it came to final decision-making, it was taken for granted that this ultimately would fall in our laps. We were, after all, a group of well-intentioned women who managed to raise resources from the Global North to distribute it to women worldwide – with a particular focus on indigenous, women-led efforts.

None of us at the leadership level had lived experience in direct climate actions or with indigenous groups. Good intentions are sometimes not enough. This borrowed power we had to give money away created an amazingly good feeling in each of us, but it also perpetuated the same power dynamics we were telling ourselves we were solving. So we decided to be honest with ourselves and flip the structure on its head.

We created a new decision-making body, the Wise Daughters Council, designed to turn those who had been grantees into the ones with the power to hand out money. Traditional recipients of philanthropy would, instead, be invited to become philanthropists. Members would represent a diverse range of ages and geographies. All would have deep field experience in their regions, and some would come from indigenous groups.

In principle everyone loved the idea. Nonetheless, as we tried to implement it, we ran into a series of unexpected implementation hurdles, all of which had at their heart the problem of lack of trust.

Some appeared among our own team. This started with who was nominated to be Wise Daughters Council members. At first, most of the candidates were American or European women living in Africa, Asia or Latin America. True, they were experts in conservation and climate change. But they were not from countries where we were looking to guide our philanthropic giving. Our well-intentioned team simply overlooked women of these countries and cultures who were not Americans or European, even though they were clearly experts in the field. This blind spot stirred a defensiveness, as they saw that the nominations were essentially all white American and European women.

Some lack of trust arose among the women to whom we were looking to cede power. A few Wise Daughters Council members asked if we would truly cede decision-making power or respect their time and expertise. They asked if they and the other Wise Daughters Council members were merely tokens chosen to demonstrate an inclusive process? While this reaction was an initial surprise to our team, it reminded us, among other things, that activists are asked to give a lot and their time, and all too often their expertise, is not properly valued.

To address these concerns, we established three core principles.

First, the Wise Daughters Council members’ time would be respected through payment of an honorarium and holding to the agreed upon scope of work. If our expectations changed, the compensation would need to change too.

Second, leaders of Daughters for Earth could attend the Wise Daughters Council, but only to listen and learn, without making any other interventions.

Third, the Wise Daughters Council had the ultimate decision-making power. It was not making recommendations to be approved (or not) by a higher authority. It made the final grant decisions.

Even then, our trust problems were still not fully resolved. We had underestimated the extent to which members of our own team in the U.S., who were used to making such decisions themselves, would resist outsourcing their power. Much of this was passive resistance and took the form of raising an endless stream of concerns. The team remained especially skeptical about whether council members would come prepared to the meeting or be able to arrive at final decisions in the time allotted.

The resistance in our own team eventually melted. Some of those who initially were most opposed have become great advocates for the Wise Daughters Council. This has been met by a similarly positive response from Council members to the final process. Some of the Council members said it would help them do better in fundraising. Others, that making funding decisions is harder than they expected and that they appreciated the new knowledge they gained about conservation efforts in other parts of the world.

Everyone involved has come to understand that trust-based philanthropy is not simply about saying the right words. It is about truly letting go of one’s power, challenging your own norms and comfort zones, and confronting unconscious biases and attachments.

For philanthropy to evolve and act on the values of inclusion and equity that are often espoused, we must try new approaches.

We must trust that there are many leaders on the ground who are well-equipped to advise on and lead the distribution of resources.

At Daughters for Earth, we found that to start to change entrenched power dynamics we had to trust the women closest to the challenges we seek to solve.



Learning How to Read All About It

Margaret Talev, Kramer Director, Syracuse University Institute for Democracy, Journalism & Citizenship