March 25, 2021

Participatory Grantmaking: Giving Communities a Voice in Philanthropy

Participatory grantmaking puts community members central to funding decisions, giving them as much power - if not more - than funders. Learn more about this type of grantmaking as a way to ensure equitable giving. 


With all the talk about the need for more equitable practices in grantmaking, its no surprise that the term "participatory grantmaking" is starting to make its rounds. With a focus on the beneficiaries over the decisions of a few, select reviewers, participatory grantmaking turns the traditional grants process on its head, ditching power structures to democratize philanthropy.

What is Participatory Grantmaking?

Participatory grantmaking is rooted in the idea that funders implicitly trust the community with knowing what’s best for itself. The phrase “nothing about us without us” nicely sums up the giving practice’s goal. 

Community members, activists, and nonprofit leaders become central to funding decisions that affect them. They join in creating and administrating grants throughout the entire process, from prioritizing funding to becoming grant reviewers.    

There are different participatory grantmaking models, but all of them ensure recipients are agents of their own future. For example, in an open collective model, applicants join funders in an equal vote on allocating funds. In a rolling collective model, grant recipients decide who will receive the next cycle’s funding. 

Participatory grantmaking disrupts the hierarchy between grantmakers and grantees. This approach gives credence to participants’ views by embedding them in the grantmaking process. 

Benefits of Participatory Grantmaking

The world is constantly changing, and with it, we need to change how we fund. As communities become disenfranchised with the power dynamics entrenched in traditional giving models, we need a more inclusive grantmaking model. 

We know diverse boards make better decisions, yet most trustees and board members continue to be white, male, and over 40. By providing beneficiaries with an influential position, we bolster the voice of diverse decision-makers with lived experience. 

Participatory grantmaking accomplishes three goals: 

Equitable grantmaking - As the demand grows for fund transparency and more equitable grantmaking, participatory grantmaking bolsters community collaboration and fund accountability. There is, perhaps, no better way to ensure fair and honest grant awarding

Impactful giving - A participatory grant approach may be attractive to foundations that are increasingly concerned about grant impact. By expanding the definition of “experts” to include those with lived experiences, grantmakers can be sure they’re focused on the right problems and solutions. Plus, what better way to ensure an unbiased review process than to include the community you serve in the process. 

Shifting power dynamics - Moving away from controlling the narrative around giving, participatory grantmakers create a more transparent and collaborative process with grantseekers. By including them as equals in grantmaking efforts, they transform relationships and power dynamics between those with resources and those seeking them. 

How can funders begin adopting the idea of participatory grantmaking?

Making the switch to participatory grantmaking can feel overwhelming at first. Instead of diving in with both feet, make incremental changes over time. 

First, start where you are. Sherry Arnstein's Ladder of Citizen Participation provides a framework on the stages of community inclusion. If you’re unsure how to classify your organization’s level of inclusion, use this as a starting point.

For example, if community participation is brand new to your fund, begin building relationships. If you’re further along, consider a community advisory board as an intermediary step. Or, if you’re ready, select one or two program areas or portfolios to try out this new grantmaking process. 

Here are some practical steps to move you in the right direction.  

Prepare your staff - Traditional staff skills might include grant review and relationship building. Help them upskill by providing training and development in facilitation, active listening, and community organizing. These new skills will help your staff successfully navigate this new landscape.  

Remain transparent - Be honest about why your fund wants to change from traditional grantmaking to participatory. How will it help the community you serve? Have your talking points and elevator pitch ready for staff, funders, and community members. 

Learn from your peers - Reach out to funds who have successfully made the switch to participatory grantmaking. Learn what worked and what they wish they’d done differently. 

Identify your KPIs - Once you've clarified your goals, a grants management solution can help you monitor trends and progress with a dashboard you see every day.

Communicate regularly - You’ll need a way to regularly communicate with those participating in funding decisions. By using grant management software, you can keep your key contacts easily informed throughout the process.

Test and learn - Stay agile! Once you’ve made a plan, know that you’ll be pivoting as necessary. Gather feedback along the way and iterate for improvements. Figure out solutions to your pain points and try, try again.  

 

While it may seem extreme at first glance, participatory grantmaking isn’t novel and deserves funders’ attention and exploration. By shifting power dynamics, you’ll create a more equitable grantmaking process that can pivot quickly and respond to communities’ needs more effectively. 

 

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