Let’s talk charity. Your friend in crisis when you offer support, “I’m not a charity case.” Your coworker when someone asks them to do more work for less money “I don’t run a charity here”.  

A far cry from painting a glowing picture of the nearly $216.5 billion in economic activity the social profit sector created (2022) and even less effective at demonstrating the life and community changing impact these organizations have every day, the terms “charity” and “non-profit” just aren’t doing our sector any favours.  

These terms are loaded with misconceptions and associated with antiquated philosophies that date back to the puritans; ideals that have created a power imbalance between funders, government and regulators and the sector that are getting in the way of everyone’s shared goal – impact.  

When one gives out of necessity, and one “takes” out of need we are missing the opportunity for true partnership, mutual respect and collaboration, and the ability to leverage and share resources and talents to their best affect.  

Enter trust-based philanthropy. Sure, the term is having a “buzzy” moment, but applied meaningfully this isn’t just vernacular fluff. You’re busy, let’s get into it: 

Let’s start with the why… 

We don’t have to tell you that our communities are facing unprecedented and life-threatening social upheavalsystemic challenges like housing, food insecurity, mental health, and addiction. 

Nor do we need to tell you that there are many organizations out there tackling these issues.   The sector employs 2M people, most of whom are women (77%).   

The sector also moves major money – it’s a vital contributor to our national economic engine. Remember that $200+billion of economic activity I mentioned earlier?  That’s equivalent to 8.2% of the gross domestic product – slightly less than the energy sector and slightly more than the agricultural sector. 

That’s impactful, complex stuff – Surely, we’re supporting the best and brightest in leading this monumental charge, right?    

Well, the average salary of those 2 million (mostly) women, tasked with solving our most complex issues and driving nearly 10% of our GDO is less than $35K per year, just 10k above the low-income threshold for 2024. And the operating budgets for their very important work often don’t look any more reasonable. 

These are stats that we usually share in trivia style with our clients’, their boards and in public speaking engagements.  The reaction is always the same – gobsmacked.  We then position the necessary question – are we collectively doing our best to create a thriving sector that contributes to healthier, more vibrant communities?   

We’re going to go ahead and answer that. In most cases, no.  

Why prioritize scrimping over succeeding? Media, regulation, and charity ratings that prioritize low “overhead” perpetuate pay gaps, fundraising obstacles, and communication barriers. Shouldn’t success be gauged by the impact made, not by how little is spent? 

What is Trust-Based Philanthropy?  

It’s about all of us thinking of ourselves as shareholders who are truly invested in the best possible impact, because like it or not – if you pay taxes, you are a sector interest-holder.  

We need to move beyond the old-school thinking that puts funders at the center and keeps social profits pleading for support. It’s time to be bolder, get a bit more business savvy, and start rewarding innovation and risk-taking just like the for-profit world does. We don’t have the option of continuing in survival mode – it’s time to thrive – if we don’t our broader communities will increasingly pay the price.  

Trust-Based Philanthropy isn’t about blind faith or just about cutting unrestricted checks (though that’s often a welcome and transformative by-product), nor is it about receiving funding without consideration for genuine capacity to maximize the gift; it’s about building real connections, trust, and transparency. It’s about holding each other accountable and working together for a common cause. It’s about rusting that the leaders of our social impact sector are the experts, and that setting them up for success is more impactful than obsessing about potential “waste”. With our clients, we see the magic happen when P4 Partners – public, private, philanthropic, and social profit providers- come together, sharing ideas, resources, and expertise. It’s not just about what you give – it’s about how you give and who you give with. That’s where the real impact lies. In business, Angel Investors don’t fund just the widget/service, they fund the vision and the visionary, why should the non-profit sector be any different? 

Let’s Start with what we know social purpose organizations want from funders (and for the record, what we think they should have to!) * 

  • Don’t skip the leg work – In an ideal world, funders are supporting causes they genuinely care about. So, it should be a reasonable expectation that instead of funders expecting providers to jump through countless hoops just to be invited to submit a proposal, they research and select the organizations THEY believe in, and then make the path to partnership as painless as possible.  
  • And more on that…LESS RED TAPE Nonprofits are drowning in paperwork and all that time spent on applications and reports takes away from what really matters – their mission. It’s time for a streamlined approach that puts relationships first, prioritizes simplicity and trust, and holds all parties accountable in meaningful ways, not just checking the right box. KPI or Metric for success? Provider changes the world (or takes a step in that direction)! 
  • Be real – They have the money. We need the money. Did that make you uncomfortable? Why? When funders lead with vulnerability and awareness of their own power, it sets the stage for grantees to do the same. It’s a powerful signal that says, “We’re in this together, and your voice matters.” Let’s foster relationships that allow everyone to show up authentically and make a real difference. 
  • Be humble – I know we just said we want funders to own their power, but maybe sometimes, a little less? Providers and communities are the real experts, with insights and perspectives that can shape funder strategies for the better. It’s time to acknowledge that their voices are not just valuable, but essential for success in the long run. By listening and learning from those on the ground, we most effectively bring about change. 
  • Put their mouth (and mind) where their money is It’s not all about the money. We mean it. Offering responsive, adaptive non-monetary support like helping to recruit for boards, sharing business expertise or providing access to networks, especially for those not as established as their peers, can be the difference between leveraging a funders gift for exponential impact and just keeping the lights on. 

*Inspiration by https://www.trustbasedphilanthropy.org/practices   

Now get that mirror. Are you, as social profit provider (or is your cause of choice), worthy?  

Spoiler alert, nothing here is going to be novel or new, but if a social profit organization rigorously adopts all these approaches, they are well-positioned for trust-based philanthropic investments. Well done. 

However, if they (you) haven’t adopted all these approaches yet, all is not lost. What matters is if the provider has the desire and intention to adopt these practices and can help funders who are intrigued by their mission understand what their intentions to be ready look like and even what role they can play to assist in the journey to get there. 

  • Get the Board on board Remember those private sector angel investors? They know to bet on management. Savvy philanthropists do too. Are your boards truly champions of your values? Do they possess the strategic alignment, credibility, and engagement needed to propel you forward? Let’s arm our boards with the right information to be impactful stewards, not mere placeholders, and ensure they possess the capabilities to inspire confidence. 
  • Plan with the people So we told funders we want them to be genuinely involved but did we involve them in the planning? A wise person once told us, “If you write it, you underwrite it” (Translation: engaging stakeholders from the outset ensures commitment when it’s time to ask for support). Early engagement drives strategic success even for those interest holders unable to give financially too. Take a look at Wesleyan College, who just unveiled a bold new plan shaped by over 500 voices that will map a transformational change for this longstanding institution (watercooler fact: they were first in the world to grant degrees to women.)  
  • Help them help you – The first step in red tape reduction? Equip potential supporters with everything they need to understand your significance, competence, and impact. Oh, and make it easy to find. Report annually on the WHOLE organization highlighting real milestones achieved under your strategy, any necessary shifts made, and honestly confronting the challenges faced. Include audited financial statements and, more importantly, clearly communicate what those financials mean for the organization and all its stakeholders. This level of openness builds trust and credibility with funders, team members, and community. Alberta Children’s Hospital does an exceptional job showing impact alongside spend all supported with an accountability policy.  See it here. 
  • Tell me why – It’s not just a Backstreet Boys lyric.  You need a case for support. This crucial tool for telling your story is not just for fundraising campaigns – it’s your brightest beacon for attracting passionate supporters. It needs to be specific om outlining your priorities, your impact and the ways to get involved. It’s not just pretty pictures (or sad ones), and it’s not just stats. Your case for support should align seamlessly with your strategic plan and is the ultimate companion piece in communicating why your work matters. Take a page from the Glenbow‘s book – they’re nailing it with how they communicate their case for support across their website, social media, and speaking engagements. Let’s follow their lead and make sure our message is loud, clear, and impossible to ignore. 
  • Be resource ready: You need to be prepared to receive a trust-based investment. Do you have concrete business plans and budgets that align with the priorities outlined in your case for support? Are these plans not only demonstrating how investments will be leveraged but also how impact will be maximized? And let’s not stop there – do we have both base and best-case scenarios mapped out for our identified priorities? It’s about striking a balance between realism and optimism.  Consider the success story of Rockyview Foundation’s Abrio Place. Their solid business plan didn’t just secure a funding boost from the Government of Alberta; it became the blueprint for attracting additional support from CMHC and donors. The result? Doors opened within a mere 18 months.  
  • Create memo momentum: Today’s idiom to remember: “we move at the speed of trust” Regular and transparent communication about an organization’s progress builds trust rapidly. Take notes from Elizabeth Cannon, President Emerita, and the University of Calgary’s executive team, who included all interest holder cohorts in the setting of a strategic plan that led to a $1.4B campaign, and then diligently maintained a dashboard of activity on the execution of this plan. This approach, of both consulting early and communicating often, made it effortless to provide timely and valuable updates to stakeholders, fostering stronger connections with funders and the community. 
  • Think outside the (bank) box – Are you maximizing your relationships with funders? It’s not just about the gift—it’s about offering support and engagement beyond that initial contribution. Let’s explore alternative avenues for engagement that benefit both parties and cultivate partnerships that extend far beyond monetary transactions. Craig Senyk, a noteable social impact investor and contributor to Classroom Champions, spoke to us about a return on investment that inspired his commitment to this initiative. “I got to peek into a classroom in Arrowwood near the Siksika Nation and see Indigenous athletes mentoring Indigenous children,” Craig reflects. “Life doesn’t really get much better than seeing moments like that as a return on your investment.”   He also speaks about the butterfly affect – give your donors and stakeholders tools to tell your story, and new doors to unexpected opportunities will open. “Often donors find charities to support through referrals from people they know and trust,” Craig explains. “Use your network to find new people you can tell your story to—even if you don’t get a donation, you’ve shared your story with someone who didn’t know you before. That’s how word spreads.”    

It’s time to transform our relationship with “charity”. We aren’t a sector desperately seeking benefactors. We are a transformative force seeking aligned partners to supercharge our collective impact. Together, we hold the key to lasting change and the creation of stronger, more equitable communities and we get there the same way one does in any successful relationship- through understanding, effort, communication and trust. The time for trust is now – shake on it?