How Grantmakers Can Get Involved With Participatory Grantmaking — Today

Colorful Hands mural. Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

By Ben Wrobel and Meg Massey

This is the second in a series. Read Part 1 and Part 3

This July, philanthropist MacKenzie Scott posted a widely-analyzed Medium article sharing her plan to give away more than a billion dollars.

What made her gift remarkable wasn’t the dollar amount; billion-dollar gifts are the new normal in an age of billionaire philanthropy. Rather, it was how she planned to give it away: instead of staffing up a private foundation, she chose to give the money directly to nonprofits and a number of small grassroots grantmakers. That included groups like the International Trans Fund, a participatory grantmaking fund that will distribute her donation to trans rights activists around the world — with all funding decisions made by a peer panel of young trans people from places like Russia, Singapore and Brazil.

MacKenzie Scott is only the latest influential philanthropist to engage with participatory funding — which was defined in the previous blog as the process of ceding decision-making power over grantmaking or investing to members of affected communities. The Hewlett Foundation recently launched a pilot participatory grantmaking program in the Bay Area, asking artists and musicians of color to weigh in on arts funding. The Ford Foundation is funding a spate of research to map participatory grantmaking and measure its impact.

Participatory funding is a rare thing in the context of today’s increasing demands for systemic change: a concrete structural reform that is well within the reach of many people in positions of power. Any donor — at foundations large or small, managing their own money or someone else’s — can do something right now to directly or indirectly shift decision-making power to historically marginalized communities.

What does success for participatory grantmaking look like? Edgar Villanueva, author of the book Decolonizing Wealth, has suggested that institutional philanthropy should devote 10% of its assets to reparations for Native Americans and Black Americans, as a form of tithing. We’d like to pose a similar challenge for participation: What would it take to get to the point where 10% of philanthropic dollars are allocated by activists, nonprofit leaders, and community members, rather than philanthropy professionals?

Here’s what donors and grantmakers can do to get to that point, starting today.

Pilot Your Own Participatory Process

The Hewlett Foundation is one of the largest grantmakers in the world, with a $6 billion endowment and a commitment to “effective philanthropy.” In 2018, they piloted a participatory grantmaking panel after artists in their Bay Area backyard expressed concerns about rising rents and gentrification.

They consulted with local leaders to assemble an advisory panel that included five former grantees.“We felt a dissonance between implementing an equity-focused program in an inequitable manner,” said program officer Jennifer Mele. “In designing this process, we were dealing with the consequences of past injustices and missteps perpetrated by our foundation and others over time.”

An increasing number of smaller community and family foundations are also experimenting with pilot programs. The Brooklyn Community Foundation created a resident-led Advisory Council in the gentrifying neighborhood of Crown Heights to advise on foundation priorities. The David Rockefeller Fund launched a fund for criminal justice reform, taking its cues from people with direct experience of the criminal justice system.

Houses in Crown Heights. Photo by Avi Werde on Unsplash

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 Malala Yousafzai’s Malala Fund.

For any grantmaker looking to get started, we recommend GrantCraft’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.

For grantmakers that feel dizzy at the prospect of restructuring their grantmaking process, there’s another way to support participation: inject capital into a participatory fund.

Support Existing Participatory Funds

As Andrea, Saumya and Shaily wrote last week, 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, the UK-based antipoverty foundation Comic Relief is a major donor to FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund, which makes grants to young feminist activists in the Global South. The Red Umbrella Fund, a sex worker-led participatory grantmaker, grew out of research funded by the Open Society Foundations, which has remained a lead donor. 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.

Grantmakers can also offer back-end support to maintain the operations of participatory funds. Ford Foundation provided seed funding for the Disability Rights Fund, Red Umbrella Fund and others, paying for things like staff and office space. Meanwhile, the Tides Foundation acts as a fiscal sponsor for several participatory grantmakers and activist-led movements, including Black Lives Matter.

As the 2020 fiscal year closes out, there are dozens of active funds to support. For US-based foundations, check out the members of the Funding Exchange like the Haymarket People’s Fund or North Star Fund, many of which have been running participatory funds since the 1970’s. For those interested in human rights grantmaking, GrantCraft has pulled together a running list of global participatory funds.

Help Build the Field Through Research and Amplification

Of course, not all grantmakers can easily redirect their money, or quickly redesign their processes with the intention that it deserves. One additional option is to build the broader field of participatory grantmaking.

For instance, grantmakers could fund research. Ford Foundation helped pay for the Deciding Together report, and last year signed off on a $300,000 grant for research to “help make the case and build a body of evidence for participatory approaches.” They’re backing a case study of the Disability Rights Fund, and a map of participatory practices among the 200 largest foundations in the United States, among several other research projects. More research along these lines is needed.

This past summer, as the pandemic pushed the boundaries of creative thinking around philanthropy, a group of more than 70 participatory funders from more than a dozen countries formed a “community of practice” to share knowledge, advocate for participatory grantmaking, and advise larger foundations and donors. The group is looking for more members and additional resources to grow; reach out to learn more at participatoryfunders@gmail.com.

Can the World Be Reprogrammed?

This time last year, it might have been implausible to imagine a world where 10% of grants are made by people outside foundations. But the last several months have shown us just how much reimagination is possible. Dana Kawaoka-Chen, Executive Director of Justice Funders, calls this philanthropy’s “matrix moment” and asks, “Can the world — as it currently is — be reprogrammed?”

It can — if philanthropic leaders commit to a serious shift in power. This summer, more than 750 major foundations signed a pledge to adopt structural changes that activists have been pushing for for a long time, including a major increase in unrestricted grants. Now is the moment to think big and try out deep structural reforms.

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Part 3 looks at what investors can do to build the movement of community-driven investing, starting with the exciting recent announcement made by the Heron Foundation to shift its entire endowment to community-led funds.

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This series on participatory funding models is a project of the Fair Finance team at the Beeck Center for Impact + Innovation at Georgetown (Andrea McGrath, Saumya Shruti and Shaily Acharya), which is exploring ways that funders can shift power to communities, and Ben Wrobel and Meg Massey, authors of the forthcoming book “Participate: Inside the Movement to Transform Social Change Funding”, scheduled for release in December 2020. Thanks to Katy Love, Jen Bokoff and Diana Samarasan for edits and support.

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