Stepping into Trust Based Philanthropy

Stepping into Trust Based Philanthropy

Adapted from remarks by Crickett Woloson, past co-chair of the Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (or REDI) Committee of the Baltimore Women’s Giving Circle and trustee of The Elbow Fund, delivered at the Philanos POWER UP Conference "Stepping into Trust-Based Philanthropy" session on November 6, 2023.

The session offered as a chance for philanthropy peers to share learnings from shifts they've made to their grant processes. For the BWGC, the Grants Lab offered an opportunity to rethink, try, adjust, and try again.


22 years ago, 52 women from neighborhoods across Baltimore founded a collective giving organization dedicated to supporting women and their families, the Baltimore Women’s Giving Circle. The proverbial “house” they began building grew quickly - to 100 members, then 200 and – and over the course of two decades – it has grown to almost 450 members. Through the years, the original house has been in a constant state of construction: new committees, new processes, new software, new meeting spaces, etc.  All this building has had a meaningful impact in Baltimore, and we have granted over $8 million dollars to more than 400 programs.


We can all feel the world shifting.  The global pandemic, the national racial reckoning, and the ever-widening wealth gap have accelerated changes in the philanthropic sector. These shifts have led our Circle to look at Baltimore, and the house that we have been building within it, from a new external perspective.

The 2020 Philanos Conference in Seattle introduced several innovative grant-making initiatives that incorporated elements of Trust-Based Philanthropy and Participatory Grantmaking. Learning about these initiatives inspired us to get creative, and to pursue an innovative grant-making experiment of our own. Before embarking on the new initiative, we sought support from our members by asking them for feedback in our year-end survey.  There was enthusiastic support to use funds from the grants pool to target grassroots and community-led organizations, and to include community voices in the process. Woo Hoo! and OH Geez! What now?! We were challenged to create a grants process that both targeted a group of organizations that we had not historically been reaching and was designed specifically to meet their needs. So, we did what we always do when we have more questions than answers. We formed a committee.


This committee did a tremendous amount of research, including interviewing other Philanos members and local philanthropic organizations. The message from these conversations was loud and clear! We were encouraged to “JUST DO IT.” And to measure our success based on what we learned, not on the perfection of the process, or the impact of the specific grant recipients selected. This was to be an opportunity to learn about our internal processes and to inform our work from a different perspective. It was about being open to, and curious about, new ideas and interpretations of grantmaking.

After completing its research, the committee recommended the creation of a small grants team, comparable to our traditional grants teams, but with one notable exception. Rather than including only Circle members, of which there would be two, this team would also include three community members from respected local nonprofit organizations, who would be paid for their time and expertise. Thus, the Grants Learning Laboratory, or Grants Lab was born.

What comes next is a story of connection, collaboration, and co-creation. The Grants Lab team was given a great deal of independence as it developed and executed all aspects of the experimental grants process with funds equivalent to one grant from the grants pool, or $25,000. In essence, they had the freedom to build a small standalone structure separate from the big “house” nearby. The team worked closely, co-creating a grants process entirely separate from our traditional one. Their only guidelines were that the grant recipients meet the mission of the Circle, and it all be completed within the traditional grants timeline.

Important aspects of the process they developed included:

  • The number of organizations invited to apply for grants was limited, reflecting the small size of the grant pool.
  • Applications could be submitted either in written or video form.
  • And, the process did not include site visits.

After a short review period, three organizations were awarded grants. Notably, the applicants that did not receive awards were each given $250 dollars to acknowledge the time and effort it took for them to apply.


Among the learnings of the Grants Lab were:

  1. The simplicity of the application and the quick turnaround time were effective and efficient for these smaller organizations.
  2. Even with the different process, the experience of the Grants Lab team still felt very much like that of a traditional grants team.
  3. Bringing together a team that included multiple perspectives created a dynamic to really explore the practical meaning of Trust-Based Philanthropy and Participatory Grantmaking.

Overall, we learned a lot from the Grants Lab, and are spending time this year considering how to integrate that learning into our processes and procedures.


Along with the Grants Lab, we also have been working on other initiatives to bring broader perspectives into our work, including:

  1. Updating our Mission and Values statements and creating a Vision statement.
  2. Restructuring our membership levels from a single $1,200 option to three options ranging from $600 to $2,500, each with the same member benefits.
  3. Revamping our grant reader and voter training to help us better understand our biases and our historical grant-making patterns and preferences.
  4. Including grant recipients in decision making about some programming, and
  5. Opening an education program to the public, a first for us.

Looking forward, we are also starting to ask questions about what a Circle-wide community engagement strategy might look like, and what being a true partner to our grant recipients could mean.


We have learned a lot while making these adjustments. A few quick lessons are:

  1. Every circle is different:  What worked for us might not be best for you.
  2. The needs of both members and the community should be considered. At times, they may seem to contradict one another.
  3. Design for many iterations: There is not a road map for this work.  Be ready to try something, adjust and try again.

In closing, two tools that have been especially helpful: First, the other people in this room and at this conference – Philanos members have been so generous with their time, ideas, and experience. Second, implementing a regular member survey has enabled us to collect input from our entire membership. The survey includes questions from all committees and has provided the data to enable us to move forward with a range of initiatives.


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