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November 29, 2017

Participatory grant making?

Today’s funders walk a tightrope of having to be open, fair and transparent on the one hand and on the other, present as being an ‘intelligent’ funder that looks to build supportive relationships with those that it funds. They also have to prove they can move with the times and respond to shifts in the policy landscape. How, for instance, should funders respond to the call for communities to have more direct access to the decision-making process? Participatory budgeting is building its own head of steam. Could the same principles be applied to grant making?

Christopher Cardona, Program Officer, Philanthropy

Has the time come for participatory grant making?

At the Ford Foundation, we know that having genuine connection or access to the lived experience of the people we seek to serve is key to the success of our decisions, impact, and legitimacy. That’s why we have long supported efforts to improve philanthropic practice—in our own organization and the broader field—with a special emphasis on making it more equitable and inclusive.

In this time of dramatic change, people are becoming distrustful of established institutions, including foundations, and are demanding greater accountability and transparency. Across sectors, elite-driven, top-down decision-making is increasingly viewed with suspicion, if not outright hostility. Foundations that are unwilling to examine their decision-making practices risk being seen as part of the problem, rather than as the problem-solvers they were established to be.

Read the paper: Participatory Grant Making: Has its Time Come?

Auspiciously, a growing number of foundations around the world are experimenting with new approaches to philanthropy—approaches focused on engaging people from outside their institutions in everything from setting priorities and developing strategies to sitting on foundations’ boards or advisory committees. Some foundations are also partnering with these stakeholders to make grant decisions.

So what exactly are these foundations doing, and why is it important? What can we learn from them? To answer those questions, the foundation commissioned Cynthia Gibson, a long-time student and practitioner of participatory approaches—including one of the first national participatory grant making initiatives by the Case Foundation—to study their efforts. Case’s effort was noteworthy because most participatory programs are place-based and local, which raises an interesting question: Has the time come for a broad swath of foundations, including national foundations like Ford, to take on participatory approaches, including grant making?

This paper shows that it’s a question well-worth asking. It also contributes to a burgeoning discussion in the field: The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy recently hosted a webinar on participatory grant making, and GrantCraft will release a guide on the subject in 2018. We’re hopeful this paper can help move that discussion toward action.