Urban Wire Participatory Grantmaking Aims to Dismantle Power Imbalances between Funders and the Communities They Serve
Gillian Gaynair
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Private foundations with millions of dollars to grant have great power over the projects they decide to support—decisions that often rest in the hands of people with little or no connection to the communities funders seek to serve. Unlike these large, private funders, many smaller, public foundations have historically included community members, former grantees, and individual donors in their decision making processes. This difference in approach, however, is starting to change: as online giving platforms, crowdfunding, and other technologies continue to reshape philanthropy, advocates are calling on traditional philanthropies to be more transparent and accessible, leading some to experiment with inviting community members to contribute to everything from making funding decisions to identifying strategic priorities (PDF). 

Although the practice—called participatory grantmaking—is not new, the evidence surrounding it is. We don’t know much about what motivates foundations to give community members a voice in their funding decisions—or in some cases, give them complete authority over decisions. Nor is there much evidence on how foundations choose who to involve and whether the practice contributes to more grantees who are leaders of color and more equitable access to grant decisions, particularly for smaller nonprofits.

With support from the Ford Foundation—which is exploring participatory grantmaking—Urban Institute fellow Jasmine Johnson set out to gain insight into some of these knowledge gaps through a qualitative study of 10 funders in small, midsize, and large cities across the country: Brooklyn Community Foundation (Brooklyn, New York), the Cleveland Foundation, Neighborhood Connections (Cleveland, Ohio), Crossroads Fund (Chicago, Illinois), the Durfee Foundation (Los Angeles, California), Haymarket People’s Fund (Boston, Massachusetts), Headwaters Foundation for Justice (Minneapolis, Minnesota), Liberty Hill Foundation (Los Angeles, California), Maine Initiatives (Portland, Maine), MRG Foundation (Portland, Oregon), and the New England Grassroots Environment Fund (New Market, New Hampshire).

Operating with small staffs that work with community members, the study’s funders primarily support efforts to advance social justice issues in their communities. Each invites people from outside their organizations to sit on their grantmaking boards and participate in funding decisions. Participants can include representatives from local nonprofits, donors, and former grantees.

The foundations and program officers Johnson interviewed don’t see themselves as the experts in practicing participatory grantmaking. “The people in the community know what they need, they know what’s best for them. So why would we, as program officers, make the decision?” she said. “The community members probably understand the problems and potential solutions for their communities.”

Below, Johnson highlights aspects of participatory grantmaking and a few lessons from her study. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What motivates funders to practice participatory grantmaking?

One funder might do this work because [they say] we recognize we’re not the experts. We are going to power share with community members. Another funder might do this work because they are interested in liberation and movement building, and the only way to do that is to take program officers and staff members out of the equation. Another funder might do this because the community has been asking for it. They feel like the grants that traditional funders make don’t meet community needs.

I’d say the fourth motivation behind this is these are foundations located in the community, and they hire staff from the community. I think all the staff I talked to, maybe except for one or two, are former community organizers themselves. So there is a sense that we are grounded in our community and  we are responsive to our community. And we are going get rid of these traditional power differentials between us and our community and give that over to residents.

What are some of the challenges funders face with this approach?

I think one of the challenges is funding. [Participatory grantmakers] have to raise their own money [to provide grants]. These are not private foundations that have endowments that they can just choose to give grants from. The second challenge is recruitment. So, let’s say Foundation A decides to open up their recruitment completely. The people that are going to apply are going to be white people, which is not really the diverse set of members that they want making decisions. I’d say the third one is just this tension of doing social justice grantmaking and deciding how to do it.

You said that white people would primarily respond to recruitment efforts. Why is that?

I didn’t delve into that [in this study], but my opinion is that there are less barriers for most white people to apply, right? They might have more time. They are likely to understand the volunteering ecosystem and its benefits. They might understand how foundations work, and they might want to be on the front lines of that understanding. And historically, volunteering rates for people of color are just lower, and people of color volunteer differently—not in traditional, mainstream nonprofits—more giving to your neighbor, things like that.

And what are some of the benefits of participatory grantmaking?

I think a benefit to the community members that sit in the decisionmaking centers of these grantmakers is that they understand how this foundation works. A second benefit is for the foundation staff who really, over time, even though they’re former community organizers, get more immersed in their community.

The third thing, [is that] these are social justice funders. Social justice philanthropy, as you might imagine, has come to an interesting point because after George Floyd’s death, [there has been] more  focus on funding equity and racism. Lots of funders decided to get into this space and make statements about how they’re going to adjust their philanthropy to do social justice funding. [Participatory philanthropists doing this work] understand that social justice philanthropy is more than your actions, it is more than your activities. It’s your ethos, the way you are in the world. It’s about the full scope of all the things you do. Many of them say, “Are you really liberating? Are you really doing movement building if you are just inviting people to make your grant decisions? Are you really moving full social justice philanthropy forward if staff members vote [in grantmaking decisions]?”

I think there are a lot of benefits, but my last is that many of these foundations provide an education about racism, social justice, to their community members after they recruit them. This is where the rubber meets the road and where I think the more advanced funders are doing this work. We’re not making an assumption just because you’re a community organizer you know all there is to know about racism and antiracism. We’re going to make sure you’re educated on this and that everyone has the same information.

What would you say are the key takeaways or lessons from your study?

One thing that I learned is that this is more than grantmaking, right? This is your whole entire organization’s approach to power sharing. And authentic participation, real, deep trust conversations. And I think the second thing that I learned is how important place is—how important your staff is in knowing the place, and knowing the community, and being responsive to community’s needs, rather than responsive to your own ideas about what the community needs. And I think this study has like really enforced that for me. 

What are three things the philanthropic community should consider if they are thinking about adopting participatory grantmaking?

I think if you’re a traditional funder trying to do this work, I think knowing who your community is, beginning to reframe discussions about expertise, and what expertise is in your particular area. And the third thing is how you’re going to understand your foundation’s approach to social justice. Is your approach to grantmaking, is your approach to social justice, having community members sit on your board? What is your approach? Is your approach to do a survey in the community?

I think the last thing is, you also don’t have to do this. You can fund the incredible grantmakers that are doing this work.

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Research Areas Nonprofits and philanthropy
Policy Centers Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy