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Fund 101: Intro to Participatory Grant-Making

Through its grant-making, the Fund provides flexible support that allows local groups to develop and implement their own agendas. But one of the most promising new trends in philanthropy is participatory grant-making—empowering affected communities to decide who and what gets funded.

In this Q&A, Fund Program Officer John Kabia, who recently finished a successful participatory initiative with children and youth in Sierra Leone, explains what participatory grant-making is, its benefits and challenges, and how funders can use it to deepen their engagement with the communities they serve.

What is participatory grant-making?

Participatory grant-making is the practice of ceding grant-making power to affected community members and constituencies. In practice, it means placing affected communities at the center of grant-making by giving them the power to decide who and what to fund. This form of grant-making requires both a recognition of the unequal power relationships inherent in philanthropy as well as a conscious effort to rebalance that power.

How does it work?

There are different models of participatory grant-making with slight variations in how they work and their levels of responsibility and autonomy. But each model involves:

  1. Setting up a panel of representatives from the affected community
  2. Defining the grant-making criteria
  3. Putting out a call for proposals
  4. Convening the panel to discuss and award grants

Most models also include a responsive training element to ensure panel and community members have the necessary information and skills needed to make informed decisions. But such training should be careful not to reproduce the traditional top-down grant-making process. Instead, we want it to be based on community needs identified by the panel members. Increasingly, many participatory grant-making models are going beyond the awarding of grants to involve panel and community members in a participatory process of monitoring, evaluation, and learning.

Who does it benefit?

Participatory grant-making particularly benefits affected communities, by ensuring they have a direct say in deciding how philanthropy resources are used. But it benefits funders as well. This form of grant-making allows us to learn from and better align our grant-making with the needs and aspirations of local communities and constituencies. It also helps us reach new groups that would otherwise have been off our radar.

Fund Program Officer John Kabia (far left), with participants from the Tar Kura initiative.

What kinds of challenges does participatory grant-making present?

Participatory grant-making is not without its challenges. For a start, it can be time consuming for both staff and volunteer participatory panel members. It is costly due to the logistics involved in setting up and bringing people together. In addition, there is the risk that a conflict of interest among panel members could undermine the integrity of the process. And the implied competition for limited resources that the process entails, if not addressed thoughtfully, could undermine the cohesion of a movement.

Beyond those day-to-day challenges, participatory grant-making also raises the question of sustainability: how can we go beyond one-off grants and build an ecosystem of grant-makers willing to provide flexible and long-term support for the work of grassroots organizations?

Despite these challenges, the advantages of involving affected communities in grantmaking far outweigh any obstacles. It brings to the table voices and perspectives that are too often ignored in the decision-making process. As funders, we must acknowledge, confront, and embrace the realities, uncertainties, challenges, and opportunities that come with participatory grant-making with a view to rebalancing and sharing of power with affected communities and constituencies.

How does it encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion?

The desire to make philanthropy more diverse, equitable, and inclusive is at the very heart of participatory grant-making. By involving affected communities, participatory grant-making seeks to confront and upend a long-standing criticism of philanthropy—that it is elitist, undemocratic, and neocolonial.

For participatory grant-making to succeed, however, foundations must purposefully adopt a targeted and intentional approach to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion. In practice, this means ensuring the processes for selecting panel members and inviting applications are open, inclusive, and accessible, and conscious efforts are taken to eliminate or reduce barriers to participation of minorities and marginalized sections of communities.

What do participants get from being part of the process?

Participatory grant-making allows affected communities to have a direct say in interventions that affect them.

For those serving on the panels, they are able to bring their lived experiences into the grant-making process. It also allows them to be active participants in deciding which issues to prioritize and what approaches and groups are best suited to address them.

For grant recipients, being supported and acknowledged by their peers offers a real validation of their approach.

Participants from the Tar Kura initiative at a training in Sierra Leone.

How do you measure success?

Learning and assessment is an important element of any grant-making process. With participatory grant-making, it is especially critical to note that the process is as important as the outcome.

Creating spaces for ongoing learning and engagement throughout the grant-making process and beyond is essential. As mentioned above, participatory grant-making should go beyond deciding how grant money is allocated. Local communities and panel members should also play a role in defining what success looks like and be involved in measuring that process.

What role does the Fund play?

While participatory grant-making can promote an open and participatory process, critics question the claim that it “shifts power” to affected communities because foundation staff and boards are often involved in setting the initial parameters and scope of the process. This requires us to acknowledge the power—including our knowledge of and deep experience in grant-making—we bring into the process and seek actively to rebalance and share such power.

As part of the Fund’s first foray into participatory grant-making, we worked with a local organization, panelists, and grantees to identify and support training and learning opportunities for participants in the process. The Fund also developed an internal learning and assessment process, alongside commissioning an external evaluation of the initiative.

By sharing the learning and insights from this pilot and the work of grantees with peers and allies, we hope to not only increase their visibility and reach but also to encourage other funders to invest in similar initiatives.