Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash
May 15, 2024

How can you challenge the power and practices of philanthropy?

Lisa Pilar Cowan

Farra Trompeter, co-director, talks with Lisa Pilar Cowan, vice president of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, about the concepts of trust-based philanthropy, new ways some funders are working with nonprofits for more authentic relationships, and the connection between the community’s role and the donor’s role in guiding an organization.


Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and worker-owner at Big Duck. Today we’re going to ask the question, how can you challenge the power and practices of philanthropy? And I am delighted to be joined by Lisa Pilar Cowan. Lisa, who uses she/her, is the vice president of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, where she helps with strategy, development, and oversight of Foundation programs and grant-making. Lisa has been working with community-based organizations for almost 30 years. First as a community health educator and program director at several youth-serving agencies. Then as a senior consultant at Community Resource Exchange, Lisa was the co-founder of College Access Research and Action, where she continues to act as an advisor. Lisa is also the board co-chair of Nonprofit New York and sits on the board of NYC Kids Rise. She studied psychology and sociology at Wesleyan University and is currently working towards her MFA and Creative nonfiction at Hunter College. Lisa, welcome to the show.

Lisa Pilar Cowan: Thank you. It’s a treat to be here.

Farra Trompeter: So over the past few years, we in the nonprofit sector, and in particular in nonprofit communications and fundraising, have been hearing more and more about these concepts of trust-building philanthropy, participatory grantmaking, and giving circles. Lisa, for those who might not be familiar with these ideas, perhaps you can just break down and offer a definition of each of these ideas and how they came to be.

Lisa Pilar Cowan: Sure. Well, I would say each of those are sort of practices of philanthropy, and practiced on their own they don’t really change things. But they were mostly developed and practiced by people who are really interested in challenging the power dynamics that are both implicit and explicit in the way most of us practice philanthropy in the United States. Which is to say that people with money have power. And I think the sort of unspoken understanding is that rich people are smart and deserve their money and out of the goodness of their heart, give it to people who are less fortunate than them. And that by dint of having the money, they have the expertise and the vision as to what is the work that should be done in community. So all of these kinds of philanthropy or practices of philanthropy that you mentioned are ways of kind of challenging those assumptions. Challenging that it is the people or the institutions with the money that hold the power and expertise in relationships.

Lisa Pilar Cowan: So participatory grantmaking, the ideas that the grantmaker or the institution that holds the money releases some of the power, brings community members into the decision-making and discernment about what grants are made. And so that’s often done by groups of either volunteers or people who the foundation pays, who are actually in the kind of work that the foundation is funding. A giving circle is like a group of people who are interested in a particular area, either geographic, programmatic, whatever, and decide that they’re gonna pool their money and give it together. So that in itself doesn’t necessarily challenge the power dynamics, but if it’s a group of people who are both interested in learning about the area that they’re giving in, learning from the organizations that they’re giving to, then the giving circle can sort of enable a different kind of relationship than kind of like one expert program officer showing up.

Lisa Pilar Cowan: And then trust-based philanthropy is really about redistributing power also both systemically, organizationally, and interpersonally, ideally in service of a healthier nonprofit sector. And so again, the notion is that you, the funder, develops a relationship with the entity that they are funding. They get to know each other up front. They ideally get to trust each other upfront, and then the funder can just sort of give the money and get out of the way as much as possible and be there to provide help when it is useful, but not to have a lot of bureaucracy, not to have a lot of hoops that the organization has to jump through and really just make it easier for them to do their work instead of more difficult, which is often what happens in relationships with funders.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, and you know, these approaches all sound like the right direction to me, but I know that there’s been a lot of backlash to these moves, particularly from folks from a more conservative background. And a few months ago, you, Cynthia Gibson, and Jocelynne Rainey co-authored an article in the Nonprofit Quarterly titled “Philanthropy needs to trust the real experts – the people it supports.” And we’ll link to that in the show notes at, encourage folks to give it a read. But in the meantime, let’s talk a little bit about it. In that article, you push back, you collectively, you and Cynthia and Jocelyn on a number of critiques, including the confusion between community consultation and authentic participation. And I was just wondering if you could share a little bit more about that and the connection between the community’s role and the donor’s role.

Lisa Pilar Cowan: Well, again, it really depends how you think about philanthropy. One of the things that the authors of the article that we were responding to said is that the donor has an intent, the donor has something that they want and they give their money and they expect the organization to fulfill the promise to the donor’s intent. And that occasionally, you know, they’ll sometimes like ask expert in the field if they’re funding hunger, they will go to a professor of sociology at Harvard and ask them what they think should be done about hunger. But that having then given their check to the food pantry, they expect that the food pantry will run the “Lisa Cowan Food Shelf” in the way that I expect it. What we are saying is that it’s the people who are closest to the problems who really have the solutions, right? We’re hardly the first people to say this.

Lisa Pilar Cowan: This is like a tenet of community organizing and kind of a common sense. But if you start from that idea that people who experience the issue understand it better than people who sit in their foundation offices and go out to lunch and talk about it. Then it really makes sense, we think, to take your guidance from the people who are expert in the issue and therefore people who are running the organizations who understand the issues, really know how to use the money that you might provide for them in the way that helps them meet mission most rather than in the way that I think will help them meet the mission the most.

Farra Trompeter: And this idea of consultation versus participation, I think what’s happening more and more now is as foundations and other funders are trying to embrace some of these concepts about distributing power and listening to those closest to the problem for the solutions, that there isn’t just like, oh, we had one meeting with local experts and therefore now we are community-centric, but that we are not only consulting folks, but we’re involving them. They’re sitting, they’re also deciding where the funds are going. They’re helping inform all the practices, they’re giving feedback to maybe the request application form. And that there are some funders I think who are moving toward that piece. But I don’t know if there’s anything more about consultation versus participation that you wanted to share.

Lisa Pilar Cowan: I think it’s a complicated question because I think you really wanna rely on the expertise of people in the community and also they have jobs and lives to do. And you know, as you’re sort of referring to, it’s easy to like have a lunch, give people a turkey sandwich and ask them their opinion, but how do you really build a program? How do you distribute resources in the way that will be more successful, takes more than a turkey sandwich worth of effort. And so I think different foundations really have different approaches to how to build on that expertise. But you have the heart of it that the difference is that it’s not just sort of like asking someone to complete a survey, but it’s really, I think about the funders moving out of the sort of position of expertise and coming into the community and engaging in conversation with practitioners, with people who run organizations with people who hold the lived experience or the worked experience.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, to your point, different funders do it in different ways. But let’s talk about your Foundation and the funder that you work with, which is the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation. There at the Foundation, you provide multi-year general operating support grants. And I was lucky enough to hear you moderate a discussion of this type of funding with some grantee partners at the Nonprofit New York conference a few months ago, back in 2023. I’m curious, how is this approach of providing multi-year general operating support grants more effective? And what are some other examples of ways that you at Robert Sterling Clark Foundation work with your grantee partners differently than maybe some other more traditional funders?

Lisa Pilar Cowan: The multi-year, general operating nature of the support is essential. Like we ask nonprofits to start from a budget of zero every year, and that is an insane way to live your life, right? Those of us who are lucky enough to have anything in the bank, that is not how we structure our lives, and it’s not how most businesses structure their lives. And so if a nonprofit knows that it has some money coming, it frees up a lot more time for sort of the planning and the service delivery rather than the fundraising. So one thing is just like the multi-year nature of it means that they’re not necessarily starting from zero each year. And then the general operating as we were just talking about, just says like, we know you know how to spend your budget. I’m not gonna tell you how to spend your budget.

Lisa Pilar Cowan: So both of those I think are sort of freeing structures within themselves. Then beside that, what we try to do is really reduce the bureaucracy as much as possible. So we do things like, we accept proposals that are written for other foundations. You don’t have to write something special for us. All of our grant reporting is done in conversation, rather than asking for written report. We let the organization say what their own goals are and talk to us about what they learn in the year. And, really our main sort of point of learning is not evaluation, like how well did you do against our goals, but what did you learn this year and what can we learn about the field? And then share to our other grantees so that there’s sort of some collective movement rather than judging each organization. And ideally, what all of that does is creates a relationship where we are sort of allies in the work.

Lisa Pilar Cowan: And where I can think about what are other ways that I can help our grantee partners, can I introduce them to other funders? Are there conferences I think that they should go to? Is there stuff I’ve read that I think they might think was cool? They can call me and say, we’re thinking about this, is that a good idea? So ideally, what I hope is that there’s just more trust, more openness and more being able to move together towards a common mission. Now, having said that, it’s really, really hard to remove the power dynamic from a funder-grantee relationship. And I don’t think I can ever judge if I did that right. You know, in my head I’m like, well, I’m just Lisa, of course they can call me anytime. But regardless, I am the one who ultimately is gonna release the check to them. And that’s just there. And that’s just a part of it.

Farra Trompeter: I appreciate that. And I want to call on something else in the article from the Nonprofit Quarterly that I’ve also heard you say and others say, which is how “philanthropic money is generally twice stolen in that it is frequently derived from worker exploitation, race-based oppression, or countless other and unethical means, and then taken out of our tax streams.” And with all of that, I’m just curious, what are some actions nonprofit staff can take to challenge what you’re speaking of as that typical funder dynamic, particularly those funders who aren’t yet on this journey, who take a more top-down positional power, restricted giving, limited giving, we’re gonna make you jump through lots of hoops before we even cut you that first check. What can nonprofits do if they’re trying to raise up this idea of a new dynamic, a new way to have a relationship with their funders? Do you have any thoughts on that?

Lisa Pilar Cowan: I do. And I’m imagining that you do also, particularly from your work with the Community-Centric Fundraising group. You know, my first instinct is to say, this is really my job, not my grantee partner’s job. I think there’s a big risk when you push back, you need to pay a staff and you need to like buy notebooks and you need to take a bus to Albany. And if your funder gets off at you and pulls funding, you know that stuff is in jeopardy. So I wanna be real about what is safe for someone to say to their funder, given that, I think any conversation that is like sort of the more honest you’re able to be assuming you’re speaking into hearing that can hear it the better. You mentioned at the beginning that I’m in a MFA program for creative nonfiction writing, and I certainly, when I was a grant writer, thought of myself as writing creative nonfiction.

Lisa Pilar Cowan: I mean, it’s just like the whole conceit that like within a year you could do something to move poverty is just like all of us buying into something that we know is not true, and then reporting on it to each other. So anyway, I think the more honest you can be with your program officer to help them understand the work that they are theoretically in favor of that you’re doing them a favor and ideally they are then able to sort of take a more humane attitude towards the work. I mean, the truth, the thing that I was really surprised by when I came into this job is that to make a grant, all you need is a 501C3 and the 990, and every single other part of this we have made up, we made up the proposals, we made up the reports, we made up the site visits, we made up the conditions, we made up what an ROI is, you know, so we can unmake it all up too.

Lisa Pilar Cowan: Program officers don’t always have all the power, but the more a Foundation, I mean really the more any of us in our lives can think about why are we doing the thing we’re doing? And is it just because the person who came before us did it this way? So if you can have a real conversation about why we’re doing things the way we’re doing them, that’s a conversation I’m always psyched for. And again, back to the beginning, it’s not always like the safest conversation to have. There was just in the last, I think it was in the last issue of what does SSRI stand for?

Farra Trompeter: Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Lisa Pilar Cowan: And what’s an anti-depression medication?

Farra Trompeter: SSRI. So SSIR is the publication.

Lisa Pilar Cowan:Okay.

Farra Trompeter: So both of which might be helpful for your soul.

Lisa Pilar Cowan: Critical, critical. But in the last issue of the magazine, Nat Chioke Williams, who’s the head of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation, talked about reorienting his staff based on a trust-based philanthropy outlook. And he says, “We reoriented ourselves from supporting our partners to serving them. By not only moving foundation grant dollars to our community partners, but also by doing it in a way that fully and deliberately aligned with our values.” You know? So I think that’s like the north star for me, and the more my grant partners can help me get there, I appreciate that. And I guess the last thing that I would say, and again, this is talking about me, this is not necessarily talking about my colleagues. I think the ideal for philanthropy would be to move from seeing our job as like giving to the community, to returning, as you started with the quote about this twice stolen, like what I am in the position to do is to return this money that was extracted back into the community. And I think that shift really changes like how people can relate to each other.

Farra Trompeter: And I know in fact, you have written and talked a little bit about reparations in particular, and we’ll be sure to link to at least one of your articles on that in the show notes as well as to the one that you just quoted a moment ago from SSIR. As you were talking, I was thinking about this question of what do we need to unlearn or unmake up that we’ve made up? And I’m just curious on the off chance that a funder or major donor is listening to this conversation and perhaps that is inspiring them to think differently. Do you have any advice for them?

Lisa Pilar Cowan: Occasionally I do talks on trust-based philanthropy, and we always use this one slide, which I can send you the link to also. And it talks about what are the obstacles that nonprofits have to sort of get past to do their work. So there’s three different obstacles that they talk about. One is organization misfortune, and that’s 27% of the obstacles. One is acts of God and economics, and that is 27% of the obstacles. And then the last is funder-created obstacles, and that is the highest number of people reporting it as a problem at 46%. So what I would say to my fellow funders is like, that’s really antithetical to what we’re trying to do here, and we gotta figure out how to make that not the case. When you’re talking to like movement organizations, we hear them asking their funders to fund us like you want us to win. And I think that is really the right guidance for all of us. What is it that we can do as funders that really lets our grantee partners go as far as they can? That can look different for different foundations, but in general, I would say it’s less controlled by us and more trust in our partners.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, that idea, how do we get out of the way? Let them do the mission that they know how to do. They are on the staff, they’ve got a great group of people working there. Hopefully some good advice from a Board and maybe some friendly consultants, like let them do their thing. Yeah, give them a chance to tell you how they’re gonna do that. So I appreciate this idea of removing those obstacles at the very least.

Lisa Pilar Cowan: I mean, and not for nothing, but none of us know what we’re doing, you know? So let’s be real about that too.

Farra Trompeter: That’s true. But let’s at least let the organizations try to experiment and solve problems that they’re addressing rather than dictating how they should solve those problems. Yes, for sure. Well, if you’re out there and you’d like to connect more with Lisa, you can find her on LinkedIn. We will be sure to link to her profile at, where we put the transcripts of all of our podcasts, Lisa and her team also publish some great blog posts and share resources at the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation website at Lisa also has a bunch of great pieces up on the Chronicle of Philanthropy website and a few more on the Nonprofit Quarterly site as well. Lisa, before we sign off, anything else you’d like to share?

Lisa Pilar Cowan: Thanks to your listeners for doing that really hard work that they’re doing every day. We rely on it and they don’t get a lot of glory for it. So I’m grateful.

Farra Trompeter: Plus, plus, plus. Well, thank you, Lisa, for this conversation and for the work that I know that you are also doing to try to move funders to think differently. Well, if you’re out there, I hope you have got something during this conversation, as I hope you do with all of our podcast episodes, and I hope you have a great rest of your day.