by Sarah Illing, Elba Garcia, and JT Taylor   |  January 23, 2018
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The emergence of “trauma-informed care” as a hot topic among service providers and funders may seem sudden or trendy to some, but it describes the long-standing approach of some service providers who recognize the importance of the role of trauma and toxic stress in people’s lives, and then act in a way that minimizes additional stress, avoids retraumatization, and provides opportunities for healing. There is no single definition of trauma-informed care or trauma-responsive work, but all are rooted in a set of principles similar to these six:

  1. Understanding trauma and stress

  2. Compassion and dependability

  3. Safety and stability

  4. Collaboration and empowerment

  5. Cultural humility and responsiveness

  6. Resilience and recovery

These six principles are used by Trauma Transformed, a seven-county collective building a regional trauma-informed system of care and improving the ways we understand, respond to and heal trauma.

As Scattergood Foundation President Joe Pyle’s observation suggests, any funder working to advance social justice is—knowingly or unknowingly—supporting organizations, staff, and community members grappling with the effects of trauma. People who have experienced poverty, immigration, foster care or justice system involvement, violence, and racism and/or other forms of systemic, persistent oppression and discrimination are likely to be affected by trauma—and in many cases, ongoing, complex trauma that significantly affects their ability to thrive.

All too frequently, funders maintain practices and requirements that can undermine trauma-informed approaches

Service organizations and providers in a wide range of settings—health care, schools, justice systems, and more—are increasingly aware of and delivering trauma-informed care. But all too frequently, the funders investing in their work maintain practices and requirements that can undermine the trauma-informed approaches these providers take and cause undue stress for staff who may already be suffering from vicarious trauma, or secondary stress, from the work they do with people affected by complex trauma.

Convinced that being trauma-informed matters, but not sure what funders can do about it? Here we lift up five key ways that funders have actively used a trauma-informed approach to partner with their grantees, and we share additional resources for further learning.

  1. Respect grantees’ time, in order to help reduce stress and allow staff to focus on their core mission. Funders often ask grantees to meet burdensome requirements (e.g. extensive reporting, long meetings, overly ambitious evaluations geared toward accountability rather than learning, etc.). While it is important to preserve requirements that are critical to achieving the mission of the work, it is also important to minimize requirements that are not essential. Spending time and energy on requirements that are not essential take grantees away from their important community work, may feel patronizing, and can affect the morale of staff if they are already overworked.

    • Report and meeting practices that are mindful of grantees' limited bandwidth. For example, the San Francisco District Attorney’s (SFDA) team convened its Safer Together initiative grantees quarterly and for no more than two hours, and asked grantees to produce short, simple quarterly reports.

    • Streamlining evaluation efforts to focus on what is most beneficial and necessary to support grantees' work. For example, for Kaiser’s Youth Trauma-Informed Care grant program, we based the evaluation on a plan that explained how each data point would be used, to help ensure that only the most actionable data was collected and that grantees would not be burdened by collecting unnecessary data. Another helpful practice is when funders provide evaluation capacity-building assistance to help grantees complete their grant reports.
  1. Collaborate with organizations through a lens of partnership and learning, rather than accountability. While funder-grantee power imbalances are inherent, using a trauma-informed lens requires that funders do everything they can to promote the voice and choice of those leading and affected by community change efforts. In order to avoid replicating the injustices they want to address, social justice funders should uplift and listen to community members’ voices and view grantees as partners and experts in their work. For example, the SFDA strongly recognized the expertise and deep experience that Safer Together partners have in serving Bayview residents, and they provided organizations with voice and choice in how the funds were invested rather than prescribing a specific intervention. The SFDA offered relatively flexible funding, which allowed organizations to respond to what the community needed. They also provided organizations with extensions if they were overwhelmed with violent incidents they needed to respond to; this flexibility is important because it allows staff to prioritize community needs.
Using a trauma-informed lens requires that funders do everything they can to promote the voice and choice of those leading and affected by community change efforts
  1. Promote and model self-care! Why should funders invest in self-care? Staff at organizations serving high-needs populations are at risk of experiencing vicarious trauma, which not only has a negative effect on individuals’ well-being, but also contributes to high turnover rates and results in poor continuity of care for an organization’s clients, and erodes an organization’s sustainability and institutional memory. To counter the effects of vicarious trauma, it is important for funders to promote and model self-care. Here are some practices for funders to consider:

    • Training. To kick off the Safer Together initiative, the SFDA hosted a trauma-informed training for providers serving the Bayview. During the training, participants learned about the concept of self-care and were provided with resources and tips to anticipate vicarious trauma and provide supports for staff to address the signs of vicarious trauma through self-care within their organizations.

    • Funding for self-care activities to support grantees and their clients. Safer Together has supported a variety of self-care activities, such as wellness retreats for staff and healing activities for community members impacted by violence. Kaiser Permanente’s grants for organizations providing trauma-informed services to youth include a component for staff wellness and vicarious trauma supports. Another foundation offered free, 15-minute massage sessions during a convening to help support the health and wellness of grantees who advance community health in high-needs regions. Additionally, we have heard from many people that food is an important way to support self-care. If people are hungry, then they likely will not be able to fully engage in other activities such as grantee convenings or the services they are receiving. For many, providing food is an important way to show appreciation and to signify that one’s comfort and well-being are important. There are many barriers that can prevent both grantee staff and clients from accessing healthy food before and during an activity (ranging from food insecurity to having a packed day that does not allow time for meals, as well as not having food options that meet their dietary requirements), which means that having food available (particularly during long meetings) is very important.

    • Meetings that emphasize connection and well-being. Funders who organize meetings should create as much space as possible for authentic connection and collaboration, without packing too much into the agenda. Connection can help participants feel recharged and can deepen bonds and relationships within a group. Taking a pause to give thanks and express appreciation for others can also support participants’ well-being. Speakers might consider opening every conversation or interaction with an expression of gratitude. This op-ed on “Middle Class Standard Time” explains how a rushed mentality can sabotage learning and offers recommendations for operating from a place of abundance.

  2. Uplift community members’ voices and needs throughout the engagement, including during the planning process. Funders should be on the lookout for ways to listen to and include voices that may otherwise go unheard. There are countless ways to center and elevate community members’ voices. Here are a couple examples:

    • Supporting and promoting artists. Art is important because it provides an authentic space for people to tell their stories, while also offering a new modality for participants to experience and process information. Funders we’ve worked with have created space for artists at their convenings through activities such as slam poetry, drag performances, graphic recording, live musical performances, and art-centered workshops.

    • Leading inclusive planning processes that center residents' needs and perspectives. For the Safer Together Initiative, the SFDA led a mindful, community-centered planning process that sought to meet residents where they are without overburdening or “over-surveying” them. For example, rather than hosting a new series of Safer Together planning meetings, the SFDA decided to attend existing community meetings to provide information about and get input on the initiative. Given the proliferation of initiatives in the community, it was important to understand and make use of existing spaces where the community already gathered so SFDA staff weren’t asking the community to come to another new meeting. The SFDA also decided to draw from previous community surveys rather than administering a new repetitive survey; they later conducted a limited series of focus groups to complement existing survey data.

    • Engaging community members in decision-making, and compensating for their time. For example, the Trauma Transformed Initiative is informed by a youth and family advisory committee, wholly made up of youth and family members of youth who have been affected by trauma. Advisory Committee members are paid a stipend, reimbursed for travel to meetings, and provided with food during meetings.
  1. Work with members of the community to understand and define what “success” looks like, rather than defining from an outside funder’s perspective. Evaluation efforts are much more likely to be effective if community members are involved in defining what the outcomes and success measures are, rather than using predefined metrics. Participatory approaches often take more time, effort, and funds (including compensation for community members’ contributions to design and implementation) than traditional evaluation approaches; however, findings that are grounded in the local community are likely to yield much greater dividends in learnings that are actionable and relevant for the community.

Evaluation findings that are grounded in the local community are likely to yield much greater dividends in learnings that are actionable and relevant for the community
    • For Safer Together, LFA and Safer Together partners collaborated to create a tool that defined dimensions of project success. Grantees identified two dimensions as key for understanding their clients’ well-being: “Connectedness” and “Awareness of Need/Hurt/Pain.” Based on their expertise and years of experience, staff collaboratively defined what it “looks like” when clients make progress on these two dimensions along a continuum from “in crisis” to “thriving“ (opposite ends of a six-point scale). Grantees found that: this tool informed staff learning by providing a “big picture” of how clients were doing; it provided instant results (unlike other assessment approaches), was easy to use, and saved time; and the tool offered new ways of thinking about assessment.

Want to learn more?

These reflections are just the tip of the iceberg. To learn more about trauma, its effects and signs, and trauma-informed principles and practices, follow the Trauma Transformed blog or join ACES Connection. To go deeper into trauma-informed funder practices, we recommend reading this Guide to Trauma Informed Philanthropy, developed in partnership by Philanthropy Network Greater Philadelphia, Thomas Scattergood Behavioral Health Foundation, and United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey.

What do you think?

  • How have you observed funders practicing trauma-informed principles?

  • What else can funders do to align their practices with trauma-informed principles?

  • How can funders openly solicit and receive feedback from their grantees and community partners about how they can be more trauma-informed?