Power in Letting Go: How Participatory Grantmakers Are Democratizing Philanthropy

After eight years evaluating advocacy and development programs for Oxfam, Allison Davis noticed a common factor in success stories. 

“The No. 1 thing that determines the success of anything seems to be how much people feel ownership of it,” she says. “They really own it.”

Davis takes that observation to heart in her current career as a grantmaker. She’s at Global Greengrants Fund, one of a small but growing set of funders that are handing over decision-making power directly to people they serve, a practice known as participatory grantmaking.  

Participatory grantmakers support a wide range of causes, including environmental work, disability rights, community development, and more. But they all share some version of that deceptively simple guiding principle common in grassroots and community work—that people closest to a problem have the knowledge, the commitment, and the relationships to solve it. And that they have a right to do so. 

That’s such an intuitive concept, you’d think it would be a more natural conclusion in a sector charged with moving money to solve societal problems. But it’s also an idea that cuts deeply against longstanding power dynamics in philanthropy—likely one reason it’s been limited, and slow to spread to larger or more traditional foundations.

That could be changing. As indicated by a growing body of research, the Foundation Center’s embrace of the topic and heightened interest and field-building support from large institutions like the Ford Foundation and Open Society Foundations, participatory grantmaking is drawing more mainstream attention these days.

“If someone had told me 10 years ago that these foundations would be taking up the mantle of participatory grantmaking, I’d have never believed it,” says Cynthia Gibson, a consultant who has researched and helped implement participatory grantmaking strategies for years. Gibson authored a 2017 report commissioned by Ford and a new GrantCraft guide on the topic. “That they have, I think, bodes well for the approach to become a more standard form of practice across philanthropy overall, which is the ultimate goal.”

If the approach is on the brink of more widespread adoption, the timing would be good. 

Criticism of philanthropy as a plutocratic enterprise is surging these days, along with discontent over wealth inequality and the influence of money in democracy. And while philanthropy’s institutions are slow to change, many within the sector are pushing for reform, for a more democratic sector that’s more diverse and responsive to communities it serves. One recent survey on foundation board makeup found just 15 percent of trustees were people of color, and 40 percent of respondents had all-white boards. 

Participatory grantmaking is not an easy process, and it has its skeptics. But when done right, practitioners say it’s not only effective, but it can cut right to the heart of many of these problems of power and influence that plague philanthropy. 

“Participatory grantmaking is a lever for disrupting and democratizing philanthropy,” according to the GrantCraft guide. 

“Nothing About Us Without Us”

What has come to be known as participatory grantmaking is far from new. Similar practice has existed outside of philanthropy in governance and budgeting processes, and some funders have been doing it for decades. It’s sort of kicked around in corners of the sector for years in various forms, going by various names.

The process typically involves convening diverse groups made up of people from outside of philanthropy to make funding decisions. In some cases, a foundation board will retain final sign-off as a formality, maybe program staff will initially vet submissions, or teams of community advisors will find and approve grantees themselves. 

The funders that embrace it tend not to grandstand, but participatory grantmaking has been getting more attention in recent years, and a framework has been solidifying around the practice. In 2014, the Lafayette Practice released its report, “Who Decides?” to compare the practices of leading participatory grantmakers. In the following couple of years, Foundation Center’s Jen Bokoff, Ford Foundation’s Chris Cardona, and Cynthia Gibson connected with each other and a subgroup on the topic within the Human Rights Funders Network. Ford commissioned Gibson to put together the 2017 report, “Participatory Grantmaking: Has Its Time Come?” and Bokoff worked with Gibson to create the recently published GrantCraft guide with Ford and OSF support. 

“This stood out as something that is happening, is not a new practice, is very time tested, but it wasn’t happening in your usual places, so it hadn’t gotten the attention that it deserves,” Bokoff says. Foundation Center is also going to begin coding for participatory grantmaking as a category in its data to get a better sense of its scope.

The new GrantCraft guide is a longer and more conceptual document than others on the platform, digging more into the “why” as well as the “how,” and inviting many foundations typically operating out of the spotlight to participate in its creation. The Disability Rights Fund, global sex workers’ rights group the Red Umbrella Fund, and the Wikimedia Foundation are a few of the funders highlighted. 

Perhaps another reason this kind of a centralized resource on the topic hadn’t gelled earlier is that participatory grantmaking is highly nuanced, and varies a lot from funder to funder. Because of that, Bokoff and Gibson were careful to set some clear definitions.

“Participatory grantmaking cedes decision-making power about funding decisions—including the strategy and criteria behind those decisions—to the very communities that a foundation aims to serve,” the report states. It emphasizes a core principle, a mantra in the disability activist movement: “Nothing about us without us.” 

For all its forms, the defining factor in participatory grantmaking is that the funder is yielding decision-making power. That’s what makes it inherently different from more basic forms of community engagement like collecting input or grantee feedback. 

“It Is Powerful to Let Go” 

While there are philosophical and ethical motivations for ceding control (more on this later), funders who embrace the practice claim superior grantmaking that benefits from intimate knowledge of a problem and relationships that can’t be matched by a philanthropoid’s research. 

In 2016, industrial fishing companies based in China sought to over-harvest large populations of sea cucumbers from Micronesia, which local fishers and communities rely upon. Global Greengrants has a group of volunteer advisors in the small island nation, one of many such groups that make up their participatory model. One such advisor, Willy Kostka of the Micronesian Conservation Trust, jumped into action, directing a series of micro-grants to fight the harvest. Funds supported local fishers, researchers, and even a group of singers who performed as a traditional way to influence chiefs serving in parliament. 

Funding decisions were all made locally, based on connections to stakeholders, bringing together an alliance that not only halted the harvest, but was followed by marine protection legislation later that year.

“If they’re the experts, it is really powerful to let go. It is powerful to let go,” says Davis, deputy director of programs. Global Greengrants has been using this series of local advisory boards doing peer review of grants since 1995, two years after it formed. “We really feel our grants are more effective because we’re not interfering with the decisions that these boards make.”

For Greengrants, Davis says a lot of the advantage is the ability to be nimble enough to serve loosely structured social movements and to rely on trusted relationships that aren’t undermined or skewed by an outside presence. Program staff can unintentionally make things worse, for example, by backing a grantee with a proposal that may look great on paper but skirts local decision-making.

“In some ways, program officers don’t always have the access to the best information because they are program officers,” she says.

Another benefit touted by participatory grantmakers is a certain wisdom from lived experience, which is necessary given the complexity of problems at hand.

“If we actually want to make significant progress in some of these entrenched challenges of our time, we are going to need to listen to and take leadership from people most directly impacted,” says Melissa Rudnick, senior program officer at the Headwaters Foundation for Justice. “For foundations and for community groups that really want to move the needle, this is a missing component that you can’t get any other way.” 

Headwaters has been doing participatory grantmaking in Minnesota since its founding 35 years ago. Community members review applicants, rate proposals, discuss them, and settle on final decisions. The board (which includes members who came up in this process) has final sign-off but has never gone against community recommendations, staff say.

One example of the kind of grantee to which this process has connected them is Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia, or United Renters for Justice, a group that started with about 20 Latinx renters gathered in a small church to organize for tenant rights. The group filled a gap in existing tenant programs, building collective power over the years that recently led to a record $18.5 million class action lawsuit for widespread landlord abuses. 

Proponents argue that even if top-notch program staff are consulting with members of a community, but still making decision themselves, the extra layer of power can skew the process, changing which grantees cross the radar and allowing other constraints and biases to creep in and change the outcome.

They also cite benefits that are not limited to any campaign victory or grant, but rather in the decision-making process itself, such as connections formed and leadership development.

Starting when she was 24, Karina de Sousa volunteered for around six years with the New York Women’s Foundation’s participatory grantmaking process while working at the National Urban League. She joined groups of other young women of color, people of all ages, religions, and backgrounds to make grant decisions. That experience inspired her to pursue an MBA, and she’s eventually planning on working in philanthropy. 

“It was a sector that I wasn’t really aware of before getting involved in the foundation, and seeing the innovative way and the approaches they were taking to make sure they’re funding community-based solutions… changed my mind about a different way to make an impact in the social sector,” she says. 

De Sousa, who came to the United States from Mozambique, also encouraged one of her younger colleagues and a family friend to get involved in participatory grantmaking. One has since interned with NYWF, and another is now pursuing a master’s in public administration. 

Yielding Control

In a sector where even loosening grant requirements or winning more general support can feel like pulling teeth, is there any chance that participatory grantmaking will really catch on? Among a certain type of foundation, at least, it’s hard to imagine.  

In fact, while the Ford Foundation is funding research on the subject, the massive institution doesn’t do participatory grantmaking itself, although it does make grants to a few programs with participatory elements. Even with promising reforms happening under Darren Walker, Ford is still representative of a traditional approach to grantmaking, in which staff and trustees call the shots. 

The foundation’s funding for research on participatory grantmaking is part of the portfolio that supports the philanthropic sector, including backing for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, says program officer Chris Cardona. A big appeal of participatory grantmaking, in fact, is the way it offers to break down homogeneity in the sector.

While Cardona has taken a big interest in the topic and is clearly impressed by what he’s seen, he’s also tight-lipped about whether Ford would ever fully embrace it. “I honestly don’t know. We don’t know enough,” he says. 

Cardona says the approach is clearly effective for a certain type of funder, and he has been impressed by the number of entry points to the practice, but wants to know more. That’s part of why Ford is funding Cynthia Gibson’s research. The foundation is commissioning her next to further study the impacts and outcomes of participatory grantmaking, a project that itself will follow a participatory process. 

“I think it’s a question for the field—how well it works, how applicable it is in larger national and international foundations. I don’t think, from what I’ve heard from the field, we have a good sense of what the answer to that is,” Cardona says. “Some hypotheses, some hunches.”

There’s also a hunger among those involved in participatory grantmaking for more research on its benefits, Gibson says, which can be difficult to quantify. 

“Ask anyone who’s been involved in any kind of participatory endeavor—whether it’s community organizing, deliberative democracy, community development, or participatory grantmaking—what their biggest need is, and they’ll usually say ‘research that shows the value, challenges, and outcomes of this approach so there’s more investment in its advancement.’”

There are definitely challenges that would prevent funders from going full-throttle with a participatory approach. The GrantCraft guide catalogs some of them: it’s resource- and time-intensive, can require structural changes that may not be possible, it can be a messy process, you run the risk of ending up with a decision that the institution doesn’t like, and even the well-intentioned can screw the process up. And yes, results can be hard to measure, something that so often stunts potentially bold philanthropy. 

The guide does offer steps to ease in and options for those that say they just can’t do it. While practitioners have differing opinions on the matter, there are meaningful participatory elements that can be introduced to philanthropy without ceding decision-making. Funders can also otherwise support field-building on the topic, or fund a participatory intermediary. 

The Bush Foundation, for example, is a sizable funder, giving around $47 million in 2017, and supports a fund at the Headwaters Foundation that pays out through a participatory grantmaking process. According to Bush Program Manager Bilal Alkatout, it’s helped them build credibility in communities, and connected them to opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t have been on their radar.

For example, the fund at Headwaters backed the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, a partnership in the Leech Lake Band of the Ojibwe community in Minnesota, to build a local, shared alternative energy infrastructure. That project went on to secure funding directly from the Bush Foundation.

Making Grants or Moving Power?

Even proponents of participatory grantmaking are realistic about the fact that this kind of giving will not be for every funder. The intermediary model seems like a great option, and more participation, even if it stops short of handing over decision-making, would almost certainly be a good thing for the sector.

But if the practice does become more widespread, there is a danger that the powerful concept underlying participatory grantmaking could get lost amid partial measures. That it will become a new buzzword that appears in strategic plans, but is rarely truly implemented. That would be a shame, as it would if this kind of funding were shrugged off as a quaint or niche tactic.

Because in my mind, that step of actually giving up power is what makes this one of the most exciting trends happening in philanthropy.

It’s also the step that’s the most difficult, as it challenges the troubling principle that so much philanthropy is built atop—the idea that those with wealth know what’s best. Even really effective, conscientious grantmaking has that problem rumbling beneath it, that question of who gets to decide, and why. 

According to Jen Bokoff at Foundation Center, there’s something about the difficulty of developing a participatory process that is a big part of its value. “It causes you to grapple—you really need to think about a lot to take on a true participatory grantmaking approach,” she says. “These people who have done it are exceptional, because of the way that they’ve grappled, really at a very philosophical level, with longstanding institutions.”

Such a process ultimately gets at larger questions about exactly what this peculiar sector is for. For a lot of participatory grantmakers, figuring out how to overturn these stark power imbalances is what the work is all about, much more than just a strategy for making good grants. “It’s a moral or ethical imperative, of how problems in our communities can get solved, and who we listen to, and who has power,” says Melissa Rudnick of Headwaters. 

Many foundations out there won’t have an appetite for that kind of reckoning. But a lot of people and institutions in the sector really are seeking to use these pools of wealth to try to untangle serious racial, economic and other injustices. And for them, participatory grantmaking can be a powerful way to do so.