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The community approach to problem solving

By Sarina Dayal (she, they)
June 9, 2021

Three people around a table working on a chart with multi-color post it notes

Participatory grantmaking [i] is no longer new. And it’s here to stay.  

To be clear, participatory grantmaking has never been new. This more just and equitable approach to philanthropy has been practiced for decades and the ethos it is based in—that those closest to the problem are the closest to the solutions—has deep roots in community organizing, deliberative democracy, and even in philanthropy itself.  

Over the past few years, however, this practice of ceding decision-making power about grants to communities has been gaining wider traction. Philanthropy has been in a reckoning about its role in systems of inequality, and calls to support advocacy, movement building, and shifting power to include community voices have been steadily inviting more and more funders to reconsider how they work. The COVID-19 pandemic and the movement for racial justice have also held a mirror up to the sector’s practices, while shining a light on the resiliency, strength, and wisdom of those with lived experience.  

But the practice’s recent popularity has not occurred through circumstance alone. For years, a group of practitioners, advocates, and activists have been sharing and writing about the practice. They have created a community, which itself has been a labor of love.  

One of the first projects I was assigned to after joining Candid (then Foundation Center) was the guide on participatory grantmaking, now a seminal work in the growing body of literature on participatory grantmaking. We collaborated on this work with practitioners across the global participatory grantmaking community. Little did I know then that this work would form lasting bonds, and that years later I’d find myself still sharing space at conferences, on Zoom, in bylines, and most recently in the creation of the Participatory Grantmaking Community.   

Set up in March 2020, the Participatory Grantmaking Community developed as a place to share resources, challenges, and cheerlead the practice. Over the course of the last year, it has grown from 12 to 300 members with an active Slack group, monthly meetings, and a recently launched website. 

This huge growth in a short time demonstrates the growing interest and appetite for participatory grantmaking and its ethos. It has provided an amazing space to uplift voices in philanthropy that don’t often fall under the spotlight. It also represents a huge amount of work on the part of the participatory grantmakers who have thoughtfully been disseminating their wisdom and resources, and often on voluntary time—and that deserves recognition and celebration. 

Doing participatory grantmaking is not easy, and neither is advocating for it. Despite how the practice is taking off, it can still sometimes be siloed off as a fad or something just for grassroots grantmakers. But it really can be for anyone, and most foundation staff are ready to explore it 

In keeping with the participatory ethos, the formation of the community, website, and programming are all created and run collectively. It’s a community that is always asking, “Who are we accountable to?” and “How should we iterate?” It’s a community that’s not afraid to get things wrong, seek feedback, and work without hierarchy. I would like to give a huge kudos to the working group and Hannah Paterson, a grantmaker with the National Lottery Fund and Churchill fellow based in the UK, whose expertise on participatory grantmaking has really brought the community to form. Especially during the pandemic, when finding meaningful connections has felt more difficult, building and being a part of this very intentional community within philanthropy has felt so rewarding. It’s a wonderful mix of funders—some who have been doing this work for decades, some a few months, and some who are still figuring out where to start. 

Philanthropy is not work we should be doing alone, no matter if it’s formally designated participatory or not. It’s clear that whether in-person or online, practitioners value the wisdom of their peers and seek to establish meaningful connections with one another, and that our collective impact is wider when we share how we work. The Participatory Grantmaking Community is excited to keep growing with a schedule of learning events, a buddy system, and the development and dissemination of resources.  

Candid is also tracking the growth of this practice through data. (A reminder to practitioners out there: report your data and make sure you mention participatory grantmaking in the grant description so we can keep exploring trends in this area.) Since 2006, more than 11,000 grants totaling $187 million have been made to or through participatory grantmaking worldwide. The vast majority support human rights. 

This wasn’t another blog post telling you what participatory grantmaking is or why it matters. There is plenty of other literature already out there—most recently even a book! Instead, this was a blog post to celebrate the growth and successes of a community that is here to stay in philanthropy, and invite you to get involved. Follow the community on Twitter at @PGMComm and hashtag #ShiftThePower, and check out the website: participatorygrantmaking.org. 

[i] Participatory grantmaking is commonly defined as the practice of ceding decision-making power about funding—including the strategy and criteria behind those decisions—to the very communities that funders aim to serve. (Cynthia Gibson, Deciding TogetherGrantCraft, 2018.) 

Tags: Community philanthropy; Foundations and grantmaking