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Centering communities: Leaning into participatory grantmaking to increase equity 

A group of diverse colleagues talking to each other.

Two days after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, the Boston Foundation set up a special fund to provide rapid-response support to local nonprofits serving communities disproportionately affected by the outbreak. We streamlined the application process, eliminated the written reporting requirement, and, 18 days later, awarded the first round of grants in Greater Boston. The first 15 grantees supported communities of color, immigrants, seniors, children, and the homeless, among others. Over 10 weeks, we distributed 181 grants totaling $4.5 million, relying on nonprofit leaders closest to the community for guidance. The success proved we could shift our grantmaking strategy quickly and find new ways to help our community. 

Based on what we learned from the pandemic, in 2023, we started the Safety Net Grants program, which supports social service providers responding to the essential needs of marginalized communities and vulnerable residents. With COVID-19 funding from the CARES Act and the Paycheck Protection Program running out, inflation at the highest levels in four decades, and fuel costs rising, we had to help fill in the gaps in the safety net system. And we knew it was important to include those closest to the community in the process.  

Why we opted for participatory grantmaking 

Safety Net Grants uses participatory grantmaking—the practice of centering affected communities by giving them the power to decide which organizations to fund. We believe organizations led by individuals who mirror the demographic makeup and experiences of their communities are the most impactful. So, we prioritize uplifting traditionally marginalized groups, especially BIPOC-led (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) organizations with 1) a stated mission and/or programs to serve predominantly BIPOC communities; and 2) an executive director or senior leadership, at least 51% of the board of directors, and/or at least 51% of the staff and volunteers identifying as BIPOC.  

Our community reviewers—primarily BIPOC nonprofit leaders, past and present grantees, and volunteers—receive stipends to acknowledgment their critical contributions and play a pivotal role in ensuring our processes are transparent and inclusive.  

In the initial prescreening round of our grant selection process, reviewers evaluate organizations’ alignment with our priorities and filter out approximately 50% of applicants. In the full review round, each application is examined by a primary and a secondary reviewer, who bring their top applications to a review team meeting. This process is repeated across three full review meetings, ensuring a cooperative decision-making process. 

Participatory grantmaking as part of trust-based philanthropy 

Participatory grantmaking is just the beginning. Our Safety Net Grants program marries this approach with the principles of trust-based philanthropy to create a comprehensive strategy that addresses traditional power imbalances in funding relationships.  

Here’s how we put our principles into action: 

Multi-year, unrestricted funding: Safety Net Grants feature an open application process, offering two-year grants of $50,000 in general operating support. 

Simplified paperwork: Our application form is designed for efficiency so it can be completed in under nine hours by 80% of grantseekers. For reporting requirements, we’ve shifted from written reports to conversational reporting and opt for attending scheduled events over site visits to reduce the strain on grantees. 

Transparency and responsiveness: We ensure clarity about our funding by hosting annual information sessions and offering office hours before application deadlines. 

Feedback-driven improvement: Following each grant cycle, we distribute an anonymous applicant survey and hold feedback discussions with unsuccessful candidates. Embracing a philosophy of continuous improvement, we value and act upon the feedback we receive. 

Support beyond funding: In collaboration with Resilia, we offer an online platform that includes courses, templates, personalized nonprofit coaching, and peer learning to enhance organizational capacity. 

Our efforts to engage community members in the grant decision-making process underscores our commitment to trust-based principles that prioritize fair power sharing, transparency, and feedback. 

Generating positive impact 

Participatory grantmaking has changed the way we work, making us more engaged with the community. We’ve been able to build trust with community members as they see us take recommendations and feedback seriously. Instead of just the foundation making decisions, it’s a beautiful, collaborative effort. 

Through participatory grantmaking, we can include diversity in our decision making and invest in groups that haven’t received funding before. In every round, we learn about new organizations and community members doing deep, impactful work. Our approach is grounded in humility and in recognizing that true expertise lies with those on the front lines. As a community foundation, we can’t be impactful if we don’t show deep respect for the knowledge and experience of the communities we serve. 

Photo credit: Jovanmandic via Getty Images

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  • Santina sadia Samson says:

    July 16, 2024 2:58 pm

    This sounds great because will help the level of grant seekers understood by the funders learn the challenge to reach the most vulnerable communities/people and grassroots organizations/CBO with capacity but are not funded due to higher critias of donors.

  • Jeannette Muzima says:

    July 14, 2024 12:53 pm

    Left on!(Like Right on--from the 60's), only in a better direction!!

    I so enjoyed reading your article. Your community centered methods make perfect sense, and no doubt are way more beneficial for our communities than were the previous methods.

    Keep up the brilliant work!

  • Rev Fr Danlami Mato Matthew says:

    July 13, 2024 3:56 pm

    Am happy to have you in this time and to know your cares, love both moral and spiritual

  • EMORUT JAMES says:

    July 12, 2024 9:02 am

    We are operating an organization giving people living with disabilities vocational skills.
    We would like to get grant funding from your organization .
    Please let us know the protocol of how we can go about it.
    Please give us guidance , we can give any information if requested

    wth kind regards
    EMORUT JAMES C.E.O. +256772446305

  • John Lawson says:

    July 11, 2024 11:38 am

    Candace,

    Love the process you and others have set in motion at the Boston Foundation - your Participatory Grantmaking as a way to further DEI goals is brilliant! And I'm sure quite effective. Kudos to you and your team and thanks for sharing what you are doing with the rest of us.

  • Muhjah Shakir says:

    July 11, 2024 11:11 am

    We love the values expressed in your participatory grant making process and in centering communities. We look forward to learning more about your work and how to get involved. The work of BIPOC communities will benefit greatly from your initiatives. Looking forward and thank you!

  • Dr. Tessema Bekele says:

    July 11, 2024 6:59 am

    Dear Candace,

    Warm greetings from East Africa, Ethiopia! As a development practitioner in the fields of business, economics, and social development within the not-for-profit sector, the development philosophy of Candid is truly remarkable. Congratulations are in order! I believe that we share common ground and can collaborate effectively to exchange knowledge. Our organization focuses on grassroots and community-led initiatives aimed at supporting marginalized children and women in Ethiopia. We are keen on deepening our understanding and fostering future collaboration with you. Tessema Bekele (Ph.D.),Executive Director ,Emmanuel Development Association (EDA).

  • J. VALVERDE says:

    July 11, 2024 6:15 am

    Candace,
    Kudos to you on a great article. And to TBF for expanding the reach of the Safety Net Grant Program. So many people really need some help right now.