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How to master participatory grantmaking by engaging the right voices

Shaking hands

Grantmaking is hard, but it’s even harder when you aren’t engaging the voices of people with lived experience. In the video of their recent webinar with Candid, authors Ben Wrobel and Meg Massey provide tangible examples of participatory grantmaking in practice and share wisdom from their book, Letting Go. They discuss how funders can begin their journey to shifting power, as well as how this powerful philosophy can be applied to today’s urgent challenges, from climate change to public health. [Watch the video on YouTube] 

Traditionally, grantmaking is a top-down process. The grantmaker sets out a theory of change to address an issue, solicits proposals for solutions, and picks grantees from among the submitted proposals. 

Even with the best intentions, this process is not only insufficient—it’s backward. In essence, the communities closest to the issue are responding to funders’ ideas for solving it, with their voices largely excluded from the decision. 

What would happen if instead, the communities at the center of the issue led the way to solving it? 

Participatory grantmaking is the process of shifting decision-making power over grantmaking to the very communities most affected by the grants. It’s a structural fix to the broken power dynamics in traditional funding—a way to change philanthropy from closed, opaque, and expert-driven to open, transparent, and community-driven. 

How does it work? 

Participatory grantmaking goes beyond consulting the community through surveys, town hall-style meetings, or other one-way feedback channels. The decisions entrusted to the community need to have teeth, truly giving power to the community. 

This power can be given at three points that are consistent in any grantmaking process: creating a theory of change, building a pipeline of ideas, and voting and vetting those ideas to select grantees. Here’s what this looks like in practice: 

  • Creating an overarching theory of change
    • The theory of change for the Disability Rights Fund, a global participatory grantmaker, grew out of the need to ratify the UN Treaty on the rights of people with disabilities in member countries. A coalition of disability rights activists—most of whom were disabled themselves—and experienced funders created the fund on the belief that activists on the ground in each country were best positioned to develop a funding strategy for their country. 
  • Building a pipeline of ideas 
    • FRIDA | Young Feminist Fund uses an open collective model to source and score their grant applications. The organization funds feminist activists under 30 years old in the Global South. They connect with activists in each region in which they are active and invite them to apply for funding and share the grant application with other young feminists who might not be on their radar. 
  • Deciding which of those ideas should get funded 
    • For many participatory grantmakers, the role of program staff in the final funding decision is as facilitators or guideposts. The Red Umbrella Fund, the first global fund guided by and for sex workers, is one example of this model. The fund’s staff screens applications to determine their eligibility. The staff then shares the eligible applications with their advisory committee, made up of sex workers from around the world, to identify grant finalists. Final decisions are made by another committee, which is majority sex worker but also includes staff and funders. 

Why do participatory grantmaking? 

Participatory methods for making funding decisions represent a big shift in power dynamics and a rethinking of traditional approaches to philanthropy. That’s why it’s important to keep their tangible benefits in mind. Studies on participatory decision-making show that involving communities meaningfully leads to better outcomes—if the community has a say over what gets funded, they are more likely to buy in and commit to making it effective. Community insights that might not be visible to outsiders can also lead to more effective grantee selections. 

Participatory grantmaking is also more equitable. Top-down decision-making skirts the line into savior rhetoric that damages community trust while painting an unrealistic picture of problems and their solutions. 

How can I get started? 

Individual donors can take a participatory approach to their giving. We recommend this article by Stanford’s Paul Brest and Erinn Andrews. 

As for institutions, the funds we mentioned above were all designed with participation in mind. For the many foundations who would be rethinking their existing process, here are a few ways to get started. 

Pilot a participatory process 

The best way to get started is to test it out in a single grantmaking program. The Brooklyn Community Foundation did exactly that. Once it became clear that the process was effective, they decided to scale—and fortunately, they had a few key resources in place. To advise on foundation priorities, BCF had already created a resident-led Advisory Council in the gentrifying neighborhood of Crown Heights. To scale participatory grantmaking to their other grant programs, they built out a full network of Advisory Councils made up of residents across Brooklyn’s diverse neighborhoods. These Advisory Councils are now decision makers in the grantmaking process. 

Other new participatory funds are collaborations between different foundations: the With and For Girls Collective is a collaborative that includes large foundations like the Global Fund for Women as well as newer organizations such as Malala Yousafzai’s Malala Fund. Joining a collective that practices participatory grantmaking is a lower-risk way to see the model in practice and better understand how it could be adapted within your institution. 

Support an existing participatory fund 

There are several dozen small participatory funds around the world working on a variety of issues, from disability rights to community-building. These funds need to get the money they distribute from somewhere. 

For instance, Open Society Foundations is a major donor to FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund, and the Red Umbrella Fund. Many community-based participatory funds are supported by smaller donations from local philanthropists and charities, but these examples show that the process can also work on a larger scale. 

Grantmaking to these funds can be an important exercise in humility—a precursor to taking a more transformative approach within an institution. Recently, billionaire Mackenzie Scott gave a $10 million unrestricted grant to FRIDA, the largest single donation in the fund’s 14-year history. In a thought-provoking blog post, FRIDA welcomed the donation while making clear that, because Scott’s wealth came from a company (Amazon) with practices they feel undermine their mission, they would use the money as “part of our larger reparative approach to wealth redistribution, shifting resources back to the hands of our communities.” 

Conclusion 

For any grantmaker looking to get started, we recommend Candid’s terrific guide, Deciding Together, which provides specific advice for funders considering participatory approaches. It offers guidelines for how to support existing participatory funds, and how to get started with a pilot in your own institution, including common concerns and roadblocks—from setting expectations with a board of trustees to mitigating possible conflicts of interest. 

Power dynamics are rapidly changing. By rethinking approaches to grantmaking around the question of “who decides?” we can unearth new insights and new ways of problem solving. 

To further understand the practical benefits and applications of participatory grantmaking, be sure watch the video of our recent webinar offering with Candid. [Watch the video on YouTube] 

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