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Participatory grantmaking in a pandemic: practical considerations in design

Diverse group of people smiling at the camera

Many of the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are being led by grassroots activists and organizers across the world.  As we consider how to resource and fund this emergent work both in the short and long term, the need to place communities most impacted by and leading responses at the heart of decisions is deeply apparent. This crisis offers us an opportunity to learn by doing and to experiment with new models of participatory grantmaking and decision making that are accountable and intentional.  

As funders in the philanthropic sector seek to support communities in meaningful and appropriate ways, we participatory grantmakers want to share what this means in political and practical terms, including some considerations and reflections on design. 

Here are some key considerations for funders seeking to build participation into their grantmaking responses.

1. Find a balance between urgency and participation

Designing a model that is participatory, virtual and quick is new terrain for many, but certainly not impossible. It requires open-mindedness and a balance between the urgency of getting resources out the door and grounding the approach in the values of  meaningful and authentic participation. This requires flexibility and inevitably some trade-offs. The key is clear decisions about which things are non-negotiable and where compromises are possible.

2. Be clear on whom this participatory model should serve

Before you start designing, ask yourselves: Why do you want to make this process participatory? Who is the core community or constituency that should be part of this process? Then engage these communities in design as early as possible in the process, and find agreement on the values underpinning your model.

3. Start with your original base

This one comes with a shout out to Virisila Buadromoi from the Urgent Action Fund for Asia and Pacific: Where you can, start with activists in your community, your networks or sister funders. This is a way to ensure you can very quickly resource and also show up for your community when they need you most. It will cut down on due diligence and outreach and allow you to move quickly. One way to consider this is to first fund grantees of sister funds as phase 1, and then, having tested the process with your existing community, as phase 2, roll out a more widely accessible pot of funds.

4. Know that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel

The COVID-19 pandemic underscores our interdependence. It shows us that we need to be in solidarity with others and use our skills and experience where we can to contribute to quick and well-designed responses. Draw on your networks and the expertise of those who have concrete experience in doing participatory and/or rapid response grant making. The GrantCraft Guide Deciding Together on participatory grantmaking is a good place to start. Look at how your work can complement existing work rather than duplicate.

5. Compensate activists for their time

Many activists have lost their jobs and organizations; many are in even more precarious financial situations then they were before the pandemic. Where you can, prioritize paying some financial compensation, stipends, or remuneration for people’s time spent advising or deciding on grants. Time is more precious than ever right now, and activists bringing their capacity and expertise to this work should be valued. 

6. No process is perfect; plan to learn and adapt

Designing these models is new for almost everyone! So it is important to be open and accept with humility that there’s much we don’t know. Do not strive for perfection, but rather a “work in progress” that will get better over time. Acknowledge up-front your plans to test and adapt your model.  Doing this with intention, transparency and care will ensure the changes do not have a backlash on people that apply for grants, peer reviewers.

7. Embed transparency in your process

Wherever you can, document your learnings in real time. Make your documents open source so they can provide learning for your peers in philanthropy. Not only will this help you to learn but it will also build with broader stakeholders. Also, it will help the field generally to grow—to learn from each other and to improve together.

The following Participatory Grantmaking Collective members contributed to this post: Stellah Wairimu Bosire of UHAI EASHRI; Jovana Djordjevic of FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund; Ruby Johnson; Katy Love; Rose Longhurst; Diana Samarasan of Disability Rights Fund; and Nadia van der Linde of Red Umbrella Fund.


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