What We Learned Applying a Trust-Based Approach to Our Corporate Grants Program in 2023

GivingTuesday 2023 is here! To celebrate, I’m thrilled to announce this year’s recipients of our Submittable Gives grant program:

  • Mountain Home provides shelter for young mothers who need a place to live, and a network of support as they create safe, stable, and nurturing homes of their own.
  • Here Montana works to break down barriers, foster inclusivity, and create meaningful connections between BIPOC communities and outdoor activities in Montana.
  • Backpack Brigade delivers weekend hunger relief to kids at 94 King County schools every week of the school year by packing thousands of bags of kid-friendly, easy-to-cook food.
  • Teens in Public Service connects teens with life-changing opportunities and internships at nonprofit organizations.

Each year, I convene a committee of 8 Submittable employees to form our Corporate Purpose Team. This team decides how to award our grant funds. Last year, we focused on a place-based approach, giving grants to local nonprofits for purchasing technological infrastructure. 

This year, we decided to introduce a trust-based approach to both identify the organizations and inform how we give to them. The feedback so far has been fantastic and we’ve learned a lot along the way that I’d love to share with you. 

What it’s like introducing a trust-based approach to a corporate grants program

In philanthropic circles, I hear a lot of conversations about trust-based philanthropy, but to be honest, I don’t see it implemented widely. Over dinner at TAG 2023, a VP of a very large NPO told me that far less than 10% of all their grants are general operating grants. She described the vast amount of work some major funders still require of NPOs.

The Submittable Gives team and I think this needs to change. So, we decided to implement some of what we’ve learned from speaking with folks like John Brothers and Shaady Salehi. Here are a few steps we took:

Using general operating grants 

We decided to give each organization $6,250 ($25,000 across all four) they can use however they see fit. General operating grants are a form of unrestricted funding, which means they have zero restrictions on how the organization should use the funds. The Trust-Based Philanthropy Project names “Multi-year unrestricted funding” as the first of their six recommended grantmaking practices. While we can’t commit to multi-year just yet, committing to general operating grants was a good first step for us.

Reducing grantee burden 

We did not require a lengthy application and we will not ask for progress reports. Instead of opening up the application to any and all nonprofits, we identified four nonprofits in our communities ahead of time and personally reached out to each organization. This approach aligns with the second and third grantmaking practices Trust-Based Philanthropy Project recommends: “Do the homework” and “Simplify and streamline paperwork.” To create our shortlist, we turned to our employees.

Involving employees and the nonprofits

We gave all Submittable employees the opportunity to identify nonprofits in our community. In total, we received 22 nominations from employees spanning a wide range of causes. We also asked last year’s Submittable Gives grantees to recommend nonprofits doing good work in the community. Last year’s grantees were:

  • Be:Seattle: building power and leadership of renters and people experiencing homelessness.
  • Community Alliance for Global Justice: strengthening the global food sovereignty movement through community education and mobilization.
  • EmpowerMT: developing youth and adult leaders who work to end mistreatment, correct systemic inequalities, and strengthen communities.
  • Soft Landing Missoula: welcoming and providing supportive services for refugees and immigrants.

This participatory approach aligns with the fourth and fifth grantmaking practices Trust-Based Philanthropy Project recommends: “Be transparent and responsive” and “Solicit and act on feedback.” This year’s round of grants is just the start of our relationship with these nonprofits. We’ll include them in future decisions and use their feedback to help drive our program. 

Committing to ongoing support

We will deepen our partnership with this year’s grantees by participating in volunteering and fundraising events. Already, our Seattle-based employees planned and participated in a volunteer event with Backpack Brigade. And our very own Madi Silver has organized an employee giving drive for each organization launching today (and, if you’ll pardon the plug, she did so very quickly with Submittable’s corporate giving platform). This aligns with the final practice from the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project: “Offer support beyond the check.” 

Here’s what the Backpack Brigade volunteer event looks like in Submittable’s corporate volunteering software:

A view of our volunteer event in the Submittable employee volunteer platform.

Here are a couple of pictures from the event:

Continuing our place-based approach

Last year, we gave local nonprofits grants for improving their technology infrastructure. We’ve changed our funding approach this year, but we stuck with our place-based approach. Our HQs are in Missoula, Montana, and Bellevue, Washington, and most of our employees live in those communities. So, when creating a shortlist with employee input, we asked them to suggest nonprofits they know and care about (and often have direct, personal ties to).

My advice to those who’d like to implement trust-based practices in their CSR programs

Transparently, this is my first time fully implementing a trust-based approach to corporate grantmaking. If you’re looking to do the same in your organization, I recommend keeping a few things in mind.

Prepare for more work–but it’s so worthwhile 

One thing you’ll note in the process I’ve outlined above is the amount of upfront work involved. We had to form a committee, solicit input from previous grantees and employees, create a shortlist, reach out to organizations on that shortlist, then we could create a form and start the review process. And the work won’t stop after funds disbursement–we’re committing to an ongoing partnership with volunteering, fundraising, and more.

Looking back, I feel a sense of pride. There’s something beautiful about the beginning of partnerships like these, founded on a mutual desire to improve our communities. It is work, but this work is the most gratifying part of my job here at Submittable. 

Not everyone will participate–that’s OK

We gave every employee the chance to nominate a local nonprofit and say why it is important to them. Some employees dove in head-first and others chose not to participate. In the end, we felt that providing the opportunity but not forcing participation provided the best engagement and results.

Look to your employees for direction

Our staff overwhelmingly identified nonprofits that support equitable opportunities and causes related to children and families. These preferences are important data points I can keep in mind as I continue to build out other CSR initiatives at Submittable.

Grantees are likely to be very receptive

One thing that never ceases to amaze me is how passionate grant recipients are when it comes to their communities. In my conversations with this year’s grantees and in my conversations with other nonprofits in projects like our podcast, the ingenuity, passion, and tenacity on display is truly inspiring. Any effort you put into making their experiences better is met with sincere gratitude. And they’re very receptive to the idea of developing a partnership that goes beyond the initial grant.

My recommendation: Iterate on your corporate giving programs

Use GivingTuesday as a time to give and a time to reflect on how you give. Trust-based philanthropy proved to be a great approach for us, and my bet is that it’ll be a great approach for you too. In parting, here are a few resources you can use to get started:

As Submittable Gives continues to evolve, we’ll keep iterating with this yearly program and continue to introduce programs like our Michael Fitzgerald Memorial Grant for young writers. There’s a lot to look forward to and I couldn’t be more grateful.

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Sam Caplan

Sam Caplan is vice president of social impact at Submittable, and previously served as head of technology at the Walmart and Walton Family Foundations. On weekends he enjoys motorcycles and craft beer, though not at the same time. Connect with Sam on LinkedIn