Funders, Bathroom Stalls, and Hegemony: Reflections on a Missed Opportunity to Build Trust

By: Pia Infante

Originally posted on The Whitman Institute blog here. 

Last week I gathered up TWI’s NYC-based grantees, a couple of funder colleagues, and a couple of consultant friends for a conversation about trust-based grant-making.  I followed many of my own rules, and intentionally stacked the group with mainly women of color leaders and practitioners – folks whose approaches to transforming inequalities were based in first hand experience and deep respect for voices/identities not traditionally represented at financial and political power tables.

While connection was forged and many possibilities for culture shift in philanthropy were aired, there is a moment I’ve turned over and over in reflection.  In the midst of a thoughtful sharing about how vital it is (particularly for funders) to “walk the talk” and the importance of our very presence “be”-ing counter hegemonic, I sense we may have missed a moment to practice just what we were preaching.

One of the funders mentioned dismay at the conditions which force would-be grantees to follow them into bathrooms and strike up conversation between stalls. The other funder and I quickly chorused our own similar experiences, commiserating with each other. For a moment, we stepped into our own funder-centric universe.  It was one minute in a rich two hours filled with an ocean of inspirational models and efforts to create equity, but it’s perhaps the minute that I may learn the most from.

In the moment, one brave grantee spoke up about the desperate financial conditions and institutional inequities that contextualize these kinds of awkward requests – taking it from individual behavior to a more systemic problem that we, in fact, were in the room trying to imagine resolving.  The group silently nodded.  No more was said about that particular example. 

Later, in a one on one, another grantee mentioned the awkwardness of that moment for her (which she witnessed wordlessly) – that it seemed callous for the funders to joke lightly about such a dismal reality for many non-profits leaders struggling to fundraise their budgets.  The truth of this sunk in, and I recognized my own uneasiness in that moment – but only with this helpful rearview mirror.  I thanked her for this feedback, and vow to use the learning moment even if I missed it as a facilitator.  

Even the most well-intentioned convener with the most human-centered meeting design cannot guarantee that the power dynamics of any group (in particular with funders and non-profit leaders) will not play out.  In fact, good design expects this – and flexes for what emerges.

One thought that stuck with me from a different part of the conversation is this:  Trust and Risk are two sides of the same coin.  In new relationships, we often take risks to see if trust is truly there and we build trust by risking together. 

Everyone who participated in this brief exchange about funders and bathroom stalls took a risk in sharing their honest thoughts and experience; and either trust was cultivated or it was broken.  My guess is that since we didn’t reflect together about how intrinsic power dynamics were playing out in the moment that it was a mixed experience in a mixed group.  Some may have trusted the circle a little more, some may have trusted the circle a little, or a lot, less.  It was uneven, a mirror that in this somewhat abstract discussion about equitable approaches to grant-making, some participants were from endowed organizations and some participants fundraise every penny.

It’s hard to escape the inevitability that philanthropy itself is built on inequality – the sector wouldn’t exist without the historical and structural inequities that make philanthropic giving necessary.  After all, there is an entire professional field that needs inequity to continue in order to exist.  I suppose in discussing how to broker trust in philanthropy with a mixed group, we might come to expect that these power differentials will inevitably surface.

For us funders, I wonder how to create the experiences where we are the ones who have to acculturate to the conditions and realities of our grantees.  As one leader in international development suggested at the start of the meeting:  How do we stay in a learning stance when we are not being catered to?

I do intend to act more quickly and courageously the next time this opportunity to discuss the undiscussable, particularly at our retreat in the fall where we will bring together non-profit leaders with funders again. 

My fierce hope, especially the longer I work in a sector and profession that I actually want to see go extinct, is that I do not require that life cater to my comfort level.  And when I do break the precious trust of any of our partners, I will continue to risk, risk again – with humility, purpose, and love.