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Trust-Based Partnerships: Moving from Transactional to Transformative

A group of young preschoolers are following the lead of a teacher during Advocacy for Children Day

Carrie Zelin Johnson M.Ed.


In early childhood education, and in philanthropy, it is essential to trust and to be trusted. At Greater Twin Cities United Way, we believe in uniting changemakers to address challenges no one can solve alone. We exist to fuel lasting change that will help us achieve our vision of a community where all people thrive regardless of income, race, or place. This is only possible when we embed trust into our work at a fundamental level.

Building Trust as a Grantmaker

Trust-based philanthropy is an emerging approach that seeks to address the inherent power imbalances between funders and nonprofits. In prioritizing trusting and collaborative relationships, funders become more accountable and responsive to their grantees, not just the other way around.

Greater Twin Cities United Way adopted this approach several years ago to support our work disrupting inequities. These values are evident in many of our community partnerships, including our partnership with Baby’s Space, where children and families are provided with equitable opportunities for educational success by centering on the baby’s point of view. Baby’s Space cultivates a community that builds trust, a sense of belonginess, shared responsibility and influence. Because the staff, children and families of Baby’s Space are primarily Native American and African American, they strive to honor community knowledge, intergenerational wisdom and cultural identities through fun and meaningful curricula, activities and events.

Louisa Lussier is the Operations Director at Baby’s Space, and a former Baby’s Space parent as well. When I first met Louisa over 24 years ago, we were both college students, navigating motherhood and systems that were less supportive than what we needed. For Louisa and me, education equity work has always been personal – and especially today, as we are now grandmothers of children of color who require access to affordable early learning programs that are trauma-informed and culturally responsive.

As the program officer overseeing our partnership with Baby’s Space, I have had the added benefit of sharing authentic relationships with many of Baby’s Space’s staff, families and board members over the last 25 years. Children who have attended Baby Space have since become teachers there, and others are second- and third-generation program participants. When my phone rings or texts ping because staff and parents are reaching out to offer feedback or transparently seek support, it’s a strong indication of the trusting relationships we’ve cultivated.

Partners for Equity

Trust-based approaches, whether in partnership with organizations or philanthropy, rely upon a foundation of confidence and assurances that come only from authentic relationships. This fosters an environment in which partnerships are more transformational and not merely transactional.

The trust we’ve cultivated through our partnership with Baby’s Space strengthens our ability to employ equitable strategies and push back on system barriers and policies that work against children and families. Today, GTCUW’s trust-based partnerships support Baby’s Space within the Multi-year Community Investments, 80x3: Resilient from the Start and Women United portfolios.

Trust-based strategies are rooted in transparency and responsiveness, soliciting and acting on feedback and offering holistic support. Together in community, we need to practice radical hospitality, suspending judgement, presuming positive intent, championing justice, and seeing one another’s humanity. This is what my roots in education and mental health have consistently guided me to do; when I was raising my children and trying to navigate systems and access resources, this is what I needed from community programs.

Baby’s Space reminds us that when babies thrive in their development, amazing things begin to develop in their lives and in the lives of everyone in the child’s circle. We are a part of that circle as well – and the values we bring to that partnership matter. When we unite as changemakers through trusting and collaborative relationships, children will achieve greater things, families will become healthier, and communities will grow stronger.

You are also a part of this circle. When moving from the transactional to the transformative, how will you cultivate and prioritize trust within your relationships? Let us know in the comments below!

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About the Author

Carrie Zelin Johnson M.Ed. is a Program Officer on the community impact team, where she drives education outcomes and leads the Start Early Funders Coalition. Carrie joined Greater Twin Cities United Way with an extensive background in education and mental health. She worked as a consultant for over 20 years helping organizations and schools improve equitable outcomes. She holds a master’s degree in education with a focus on leadership.

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One comment on “Trust-Based Partnerships: Moving from Transactional to Transformative”

  1. Thanks, Carrie yes, it is very important to trust and to be trusted in this space many families have come from backgrounds of generational miss trust, as well as unfairness as a child care provider, I appreciate your work and the work of your organization. It is greatly needed continue to be a force for our communities as I will continue to work in every way that I can in the same baby space.

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