John Brothers

Stop asking for proof of impact, start building trust

Episode Overview

Under John Brothers’ leadership, the T. Rowe Price Foundation has become a CSR pioneer with their trust-based social good model. In this episode, John shares his perspective on how funders can stop asking for proof of impact and start building trust. He covers:

  • Why impact itself needs to be redefined

  • How to frame the concept of unrestricted funding for corporate leaders 

  • The biggest mistake funders make in building community relationships

John’s Bio

John Brothers is the president of the T. Rowe Price Foundation and president of T. Rowe Price Charitable. After growing up in deep poverty and homelessness, Dr. Brothers began his work serving in the local community as a community organizer and family case manager in urban neighborhoods in the Midwest before taking leadership positions with local and national organizations on the East Coast. He served as a management and social policy professor for over a decade at NYU and Rutgers University and served as a visiting scholar at the Hauser Center at Harvard. He currently alternates teaching engagements between the Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup with the Goucher Prison Education Project and the College of Business at Coppin State University, a historically black college located in Baltimore.

Connect with John Brothers



- Three years ago, this bridge was deteriorating fast. It needed more than just a facelift. Part of it needed to be stripped down and rebuilt. So the City made a plan, a $16 million 18-month plan to rehabilitate the bridge, improve bike and pedestrian access, and strengthen the internal structures. The trouble is things didn't go according to plan.

About a year into the project, a construction worker accidentally cut into the metal girders, the large beams that distribute the load to the base of the bridge. Those cuts compromise the integrity of the whole structure. Work stopped, trucks and buses had to be diverted, timelines pushed back. The crew had to shift their focus to repair the damage. In the end, that mistake added more than a year to the project and undermined public support.

The work on this bridge is a good analogy for social impact professionals. Many people in this space recognize the need to strip down and rebuild the relationships that were founded on old power structures. But as you do, it's important to move with intention and care. The last thing you want to do is damage the very thing you're trying to stabilize.



Welcome to Impact Studio. I'm Sam Caplan, vice president of social impact at Submittable. In the world of corporate social responsibility, I've seen that sometimes in the rush to make an impact, relationships get overlooked. Not for John Brothers. As president of the T Rowe Price Foundation, he makes relationship building a priority. In fact, he's helped to redefine how the foundation supports communities by adopting a trust-based model for their social impact work.


What CSR looks like at T. Rowe Price.

about giving us a little bit of an overview of what CSR looks like at T Rowe Price?

- Yeah. So I think there are several different functions that fall within the quote-unquote "typical corporate social responsibility" certainly philanthropy. The involvement of our associates, both in their time, and their dedication of their time, but also in the dedication of their dollars. We have a really in-depth what we call capacity building and technical assistance program here.

We believe strongly in what you might call shared value. And so we know places like Baltimore, where we do a lot of our work in a very place-based way, struggle with infrastructure. And that's what often companies have in abundance. We incubate and start, based on feedback from our community partners, initiatives that fill patches in the social safety net.

And so we've created about 20 initiatives here that ultimately we partner with, seed, sometimes run, and then hand them off to our community partners for the long term. We're huge into what we call sharing sugar, which is basically this idea of collaborating and partnering and, from our vantage point, really using our social capital to benefit the larger community.

- Very cool. From a prior conversation that we had, John, you talked about trust-based philanthropy and that really struck me as is very interesting because I hear about trust-based philanthropy a lot in terms of private philanthropy, like it's been this emerging movement that a lot of private foundations and private grant-makers have been adopting. But to be honest, that the first time I ever heard it in relation to CSR was from you. So let's talk about that just a little bit. Can you maybe start by just defining

Defining trust-based philanthropy.

trust-based philanthropy for us?

- Sure when we call it trust-based social good because in relation to the question you just asked, companies offer a lot different things than just a traditional philanthropy. And so while trust-based philanthropy is a really popular term, for us we call it trust-based social good. And essentially, for us, what trust-based means is when we have the good fortune of being able to step into a local community, which we really regard as we are walking into somebody's home, and we hold that ground sacred. That for us, when we walk into that community that we are both paying attention to how we enter that community, what our bedside manner is.

And then in the ways in which community interact with us, that we are trying to knock down barriers, we are trying to take away the power dynamic so that we can be just an eye-to-eye conversation about how to be valuable members in their community change. And you can't do that if there's a power dynamic that both companies or philanthropy set up in their advantage and then misuse.

And that also there's a history of just really bad bedside manner that is kind of built on itself that causes companies and philanthropies to really have to think deeply about, OK, what are the things that I need to do to tear away at, oftentimes, years and years of real challenge, so that I can see at eye level and be involved in real true community change.

- Yeah and you mentioned the power dynamic. Like, just tell me what you mean when you say

Power dynamic between funders and nonprofits.

power dynamic between funders and nonprofits and communities.

- Yeah. So here's a really good example. And it comes into the form of evaluation. So, Sam, if I was at a nonprofit conference and we were playing a drinking game, and the word was impact, I'd be drunk in two minutes, right? And so it's an often-used word, it's jargony, obviously, at this point. But often it is a word that is used and weaponized in local communities.

And so, when I walk into local communities and I say, I want you to show me your impact, that's a really big deal. Because number 1, if I walked into your home, Sam, and said, hey, step on the scale and you should weigh what I think you should weigh, you'd tell me to get the heck out of your house, as you should.

And so when philanthropy, or when companies walk into a local community and they have gained acceptance to be able to do that. And then, all of the sudden, say, hey, I want you to measure yourself this way and do it this way without earning that trust, but then stepping on that trust if they've earned it by doing something like that.

I remember when I first started here at T Rowe Price, seeing a new head of a philanthropy is often like seeing a unicorn.

These roles don't change that often. But when I got here, there were a number of folks that wanted to meet me. And I also didn't come from Baltimore, which was the extra incentive.

And so I remember sitting down with a community leader, and that community leader was well known in her community, and earned that place and that reverence. And sitting--

they came to T Rowe in all of our marble and wood, and we met them in a conference room. And before I could even really know her name, she pulled out all these charts and graphs, and she started to show me why she was valuable. Look at the arrows going up. Aren't I good?

And it was just so backwards. I didn't get a chance to know about her. I didn't get a chance to see what she felt was important and what was the North Star for her organization.

What she thought is the only thing I cared about were charts and graphs.

And that's unfortunate. It was an indicator, for me, about how challenged relationships had been.

And the power dynamic there really stepped over the ability to, number 1, really get to know them. Which is obviously, the first point of any relationship is getting to know each other, and then being able to have an honest dialogue about how we could be helpful moving forward. And so that story sticks with me every day.

But I know in that--

to your question, the one example of a number of examples that philanthropy and companies use is this area of evaluation and impact. And to be honest with you, that's not philanthropy's ultimate job. It is the job of communities to know what they should measure, how they should be learning, and what that learning should be doing for them each and every day.

Once they know that, my job is to support them to that end, not to be a coach watching them and saying, you're not light enough. You need to do this.

- I'm curious. Do you think that this is something that your colleagues, sort of, across other

Will other corporate giving programs adopt this trust-based approach?

corporate giving programs will begin to adopt? Or do you feel like T Rowe Price is a bit of a unicorn in taking this trust-based approach?

- Yeah. So, I mean, at least in the trust-based philanthropy world, we--

I serve on the leadership of like a governing counsel of trust-based philanthropy. And we are the only corporation there. And for a long while, we were the only company that was kind of within that network speaking. There are others, certainly, that are a part of that.

Now. I'll say a couple of things. I think the first thing, in large part, we only provide general operating multi-year support, right? And when our folks here, at T Rowe that sit on the foundation board, who are our fellow executives and leaders within the firm, when they would step down from their Bloomberg terminals and come into the board meeting, their first reaction was--

when we started to say, hey, this is the way that we think we should fund. Because we had been year-after-year funders. We really, in large part, only funded programs.

And so when they said, well, why would we make this switch, right? Because they had been conditioned to watch, right? That's what they felt like was good philanthropy, was watching and creating these mechanisms to watch.

And so it was--

honestly, it was actually more easy than what I've heard in our traditional philanthropy models. We said, hey, when you invest in Coca-Cola, do you invest in Diet Coke? Or do you just or do you invest in Coca-Cola? And they were like, well, we invest in Coca-Cola.

I was like, it's the same thing here. We would never invest in only a product of a company. We would invest in the company. And we would hope they would have great products.

And then we said, well, do you invest in them in one-year increments, or do you look for the long term? And, of course, T Rowe is well known for its work and looking at long-term investment approach. And so we said, well, why would we treat these folks any different than the way you would treat your clients? And they were like, of course, that makes total sense.

So it was actually easier on the corporate side to be able to do this work.

Now in relation to the last kind of area that you were asking about, I think, for us at least, the trust-based approach, and our work towards having authentic relationships in community, right, that's really important to us to make sure that we can walk into communities, that we have the permission to walk into those communities, and that community is saying, hey, we can have a real conversation with you. We don't--

and we're not worried that you're going to hold funding from us, or do certain things. Like we really feel that we've earned that, and we have to earn it every day, but that we've earned that, that's important.

And so, since the beginning of 2020, we've had over 200 companies reach out to T Rowe to say we want to have authentic relationships in community. 20 companies in Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd approached us and said, hey, like look what's happening in Minneapolis. Like we want to have better relationships in our community.

And what I said is, the folks that are on 38th and Chicago that are protesting, because we had a similar protest when we started our walk towards trust-base when Baltimore was going through its unrest. What we said is, those folks that are on 38th and Chicago are not only upset that they lost George, who was their friend, their brother, their neighbor, what they're also upset is the conditions that were created that allowed that to happen for which you were a part of.

And you can't walk into someone's house, kick a hole in their TV, spray paint on their wall, and move their furniture around, and then say I want to be your friend.

You're going to have to earn that trust back.

And that is going to--

you have to pay attention and you have to do that with intention. And that's the way to do it.

And so for us that's the conversation we've been having with other companies, which trust base is baked into that. But it's, in large part, about the work that companies need to do to obtain trust and community, which oftentimes means admitting where you made mistakes before, and then walking a different pathway to earn that trust back.

- Hi, I'm Carrie Anne, chief marketing officer at Submittable. The way John talks about building relationships is a good reminder that establishing trust isn't a one-time thing. It's an ongoing effort, one that requires you to continuously step into someone else's experience of the world. We're so excited to bring you to this episode as part of Impact Studio.

Our goal is to keep creating spaces like this for more conversation. If you're interested in taking a more trust-based approach to your community grant making. We'd love to talk to you more about how our software could help support your work. Please reach out to our team at

Now, back to the episode.

- So

Advice for CSR practitioners and corporations.

John, what advice do you have for other CSR practitioners and corporations who want to move towards more of this trust-based model?

- Yeah. I mean, think non-trust-based practices can happen really quickly and off of the side of the desk, right? So somebody will come in and say, hey, let's give them a grant, and say, hey, we should be watching for these metrics, right? And they might say it in the nicest way and everybody wants the really impactful things to happen.

But again, the how of your philanthropy is as important as the philanthropy itself, if not more important. So when you sit down at the bar at 6:00 o'clock at night with nonprofit leaders, and the topic of the conversation is talking about philanthropy, they're not talking about, oftentimes, the money that--

the amounts. What they're talking about is the way they were treated, the how of our systems.

And so when you have just a very simple conversation and something comes in that says, hey, let's get them to count this, or measure this, as an example, or hey, let's put this extra step in the process so that we can watch for this. Take a step back, like in any company that has retail or a customer service approach, and just walk through it like a customer, right?

I'm admittedly geeky and nerdy in certain areas. I sit in social service offices once a quarter to watch service delivery, and I grab an application as if I'm going to sign up for a service. And more times than not, in this world of poverty alleviation or solving issues, that end, the how of how we do our work is often forgot. And so you'll see in--

I went in recently and got an application for emergency assistance. Now just imagine a mother and her child going to fill in a form. That form was 28 pages long.

That form not once said anything about what that mom was good at. It was all, do you have an addiction? Why are you unemployed? Why--

something relating to why don't you have money in your bank account? Going through things.

Number 1, that process probably made--

it made me feel small. And I know it makes someone who's actually filling out services small.

And at the other end of it. I don't know any service in the world that you can build off by asking somebody--

by building off of a glass is half empty.

Sam, looking at you, if I said, hey, Sam, let's get you to a better place. Tell me what's wrong with you.

As compared to, Sam, like what are you awesome at? All right, well, let's build on that. It's the same thing in philanthropy.

Just draw down applications from philanthropy and look at the questions that they're asking. For me, I know if they're philanthropy and how their philanthropy is flawed by looking at the first page. Because it's asking them about needs. Communities don't recognize themselves as needs. They recognize themselves much differently. The only way needs come in is by outsiders coming in and constantly talking to them about what's wrong with them.

And so I think from our standpoint my advice to CSR and philanthropy professionals that are wanting to do this work well is start with your bedside manner and the how of your work. The very nature of the work after that is going to be that much better because you really spent time on how that work interacts with community and its residents.


- Construction on the bridge officially ended earlier this year. Despite the setback, the project was, overall, a success. Once the bridge reopened, the City held a naming ceremony. The new name, Beartracks, was chosen by local tribal councils and meant to honor the Salish people who had inhabited the area for thousands of years.

Though the name itself is an important recognition, it's more meaningful because it was the culmination of all the time and resources the city put into fixing the bridge for the long term. Without that work, a new name would have felt like an empty gesture. It's a good reminder for CSR work, too. As important as it is to consider the language we used to describe our work, the names only hold weight if we follow through on our promises. Trust-based social good, as a term, is only meaningful if we live up to it. Thanks for tuning in.



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