Update From the Foundation
The Compton Foundation’s Trust-Based Approach to Spending Down
September 30, 2020
Ellen Friedman has been executive director of the Compton Foundation for 10 years. We sat down with Ellen to hear about her trust-based journey, and how the Foundation chose to spend out rather than exist in perpetuity.
You’ve been working in philanthropy for 30 years. Can you share a little about when you first started and how your thinking about the role of philanthropy has evolved?
I got into philanthropy to move money from those who had it to those doing transformative work on the ground. In my experience, I observed that donors usually got in the way of people who just needed resources to soar. Funders tend to get stuck in their own ideas about how change happens, rather than listening to people doing the work. Looking back on my early days in philanthropy, starting with my first job as a program officer, I see now that I didn’t listen as well as I could have to people’s opinions, or to organizing that was different from my own.
Over time, I began to take an approach that really valued listening and partnership-building, with a recognition that the power dynamic was real, and that we needed to do whatever we could to diminish it. At the Compton Foundation, we’ve worked hard to shift that dynamic. We’re investing more time in the relationships rather than the paperwork, which also means the majority of our grants are unrestricted and multiyear (which they had not been before).
What are some trust-based changes that you’ve made or challenges that you’ve considered in your grantmaking practice?
At the heart of it, our grantmaking approach at Compton has shifted as we listened more deeply to grantees. When I came to the foundation, every applicant used to have to send five copies of grant applications to the foundation because we sent them to the grants committee. It then took an average of 4-6 months to get responses. The process was extremely tedious and timely, and we realized that less than 5% of applicants were actually receiving support.
In more recent years, as our grants were becoming majority multiyear, the availability of allocating new grant money was diminishing, the LOI process we adopted was becoming harder, and we could not be as responsive, so we had to pivot again. We had to make a tradeoff between LOI and multiyear grants, which led to less new money.
As we listened to grantees, we realized we needed less and less paperwork. We were having more honest, transparent conversations, which led us to drop almost all reporting requirements in exchange for in-person or phone conversations.
Transparency is key to trust-based philanthropy, but it can also be hard to do. Are there uncomfortable conversations you’ve had where you were glad to have erred on the side of transparency?
The reality is that we’re a small foundation with limitations in terms of our mission and historical commitment to certain fields of work. We place great value on hearing what’s important to our grantees, and even when we can’t say “yes,” it’s important for us to be transparent about our process so people understand why we do what we do. It might not always make everyone happy, but it will hopefully increase understanding, save people time, and show our respect, even if we don’t always agree on the outcome.
There was a recent decision we made to tie off funding to a particular group. They wanted a conversation about it, which we had. We wanted to be completely honest with them and share feedback in a way that was useful to them. While we shared the reasons for the decision, it was really hard, and the grantee did not feel satisfied. The reality was that we’d decided to go deeper with supporting fewer organizations. Despite the fact that we could no longer fund them, we made a commitment to having that conversation with this organization, and to opening up ourselves to them. It was a way to honor the relationship and keep trust in the relationship, even though the grantmaking was ending.
How do you balance responsiveness to your board and grantees, especially as a family foundation?
Under the best of circumstances, board, grantees, and staff are all in alignment and responsive to each other. In reality, it’s a dance between staff and grantees, staff and board, and board and grantees. We’re very aware of the funky dynamics that can be created or magnified in situations where grantees feel that they have to perform for boards. We’ve tried to set up different ways to have more authentic conversations. For example, we invited some of our grantees to do workshops with the board, so that rather than sitting and listening to a PowerPoint presentation, they can engage in practices our grantees do. We invited small groups of grantees to sit in conversation for an afternoon with the board about current topics rather than presenting about their work. We compensate people for their time and expenses, and try to set those conversations up in settings that minimize what could otherwise be stiff or contrived interactions.
Because the Compton board is made up of half-family, half non-family, having non-family board members means we have new and different voices at the table. These people are working on and thinking about social transformation in new ways. The conversation has evolved over the years as we learn and grow. That’s how we got to the decision to spend out – through conversations, refinement, feedback about hard questions. Why do foundations exist? How was wealth created? What’s the harm of that wealth? Who are we? An unelected body giving away money.
One of our core grantees, Rockwood Leadership Institute, talks about leading from the inside out. Our board embraces this notion that we need to do the personal work in addition to organizational work – including understanding the role of white supremacy and patriarchy in the creation of wealth of the founding family. That work had to be done to liberate the resources of the foundation. It’s deeply personal work, coming to terms with who you are, and your family’s history. I had to do that work myself in terms of my own privilege of running a foundation. The work calls on each of us to look at our ego attachment, how we perpetuate power, how we do or don’t relate to and inhabit the positional power of being at a foundation. That’s a journey that each of us are on different stages.
The Compton Foundation is spending out. How did you reach that decision?
If you’re a foundation whose interests are world peace, climate change, gender justice, how can we choose perpetuity over action now? We had a lot of conversations with family members going through a process of realizing what it meant that their children and grandchildren would not have access to this foundation. For some that was uncomfortable and for some that was liberating. Non-family members got to question – what is the privilege connected to this inherited “birthright”? We listened to the honest conversations happening in the sector now, about the role of philanthropy in upholding inequitable undemocratic systems, and the hard truth that if the resources creating philanthropic wealth were taxed and under control of democratic representatives, we would have different policies and safety nets available than we do today. While I am very happy that philanthropy is doing some great work, I am also mainly unhappy about it – it should be public institutions committed to public wellbeing doing this work. Philanthropy undermines a true representative democracy.
What has some of the inner work looked like for you? How have you cultivated your personal relationship to abundance versus scarcity in this work and beyond?
I have to believe the work we’re supporting is important and that it means a lot to people other than the Compton Foundation. If we can lean into an abundant mindset, we can create conditions where we support people from that place. Initially, we wanted to lean into that possibility, by funding storytellers – artists, writers, filmmakers, dancers, musicians telling the story about what an abundant future looks like. We have to be able to uncover the horrors of the present, but also see the possibility of a different future: the places where former combatants are working and living together, where people are living in right relationship to the earth, where there is ritual and ceremony that lifts people up and underscores our interdependence with each other and the planet.
I believe this reckoning for new moral and spiritual activism is part of this call for trust-based philanthropy. Our connections to one another, and to lifting each other up, is a spiritual calling. Our interdependence is a spiritual recognition. Trust-based philanthropy is a recognition of the deep meaning of philanthropy, which is love. If we’re going to bring about that abundant future, it will have be with each other and a commitment to a revolutionary love for humanity.