There is a new buzzword in philanthropy and one which merits deep exploration. Participatory grantmaking recognizes that grantmaking decision-makers may not have the lived experience and proximity to the issues that they are working in. It also recognizes that nonprofit staff are not merely beneficiaries of charity but active change agents in the communities in which they live and work. Participatory grantmaking seeks to be wildly inclusive and deeply engaging.
Beyond empowering individuals, participatory grantmaking has a number of other benefits. It increases transparency and accountability of large wealth-holding institutions by opening them up to scrutiny and evaluation. This also strengthens community trust of these formidable institutions that may have previously been seen as top down, classist, and inaccessible. This type of grantmaking allows for deeper understanding of issues and the block to block, person to person, nuances that are often skimmed over in traditional grantmaking.
Participatory grantmaking practices can be incorporated into every step of the grantmaking cycle – from research, to the invitation stage, to decision-making, and to self and grantee evaluation. By engaging with on the ground individuals early on and through the grantmaking cycle, foundations help cultivate a richer social and safety network. It also encourages the diversification of opinions, experiences, and backgrounds in a conversation which inevitably leads to stronger decision-making.
Technology and innovation lend themselves to the participatory trend, both in philanthropy and beyond. Individuals can search online databases to see where a foundation gives and how well paid their employees are. They can see how differently family members are paid relative to non-family members in family-origin foundations. Similarly, Gen Z is now the first digitally native generation that has recently entered the workforce. They are accustomed to grassroots movements driven by community calls for power like Occupy Wall Street and the Women’s March. They also expect their opinions to be taken into account as demonstrated by Yelp’s popularity and the Cancel Culture.
This can be a challenging shift to many long-standing institutions where tradition and power are tied together in a delicate but tightly woven web at the top. Similarly, communities and grant recipients are often distrustful of efforts to engage them. Time is often an inadequate resource for individuals, particularly those near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, and many may have found theirs previously disrespected by fruitless evaluations, poorly directed site visits, and unrewarded and onerous grant applications and character limits.
The key to participatory grantmaking is to redistribute power and resources out of the hands of the few and into the communities that are without. Increasingly, philanthropic infrastructure organizations are building a cadre of resources for institutions to help them meaningfully engage in participatory grantmaking. A few of those resources include:
- GrantCraft’s Content Series
- Guide: Deciding Together Shifting Power and Resources Through Participatory Grantmaking
- Ford Foundation’s Paper: Participatory Grantmaking: Has Its Time Come
- Inside Philanthropy Article: Power in Letting Go: How Participatory Grantmakers are Democratizing Philanthropy
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