‘Innovation and iteration’ was the key theme of the January the International Human Rights Funders Group (IHRFG) conference in San Francisco. In the opening plenary, speakers noted that the ‘innovation’ of community involvement and participation in grant decisions would be one of the topics included in sessions throughout the meeting. It was quickly added, though, that these practices are in fact really not new. ‘Why then’, the panellist remarked, ‘is participatory grantmaking still considered innovative? Isn’t it just common sense?’
Since the 2014 publication of Who Decides, the seminal research on participatory grantmaking carried out by Matty Hart of The Lafayette Practice, the philanthropic sector is abuzz with conversation about the value and benefits of participatory funding and, increasingly, participatory funding models. The Who Decides report discusses the benefits of participatory grantmaking, highlighting the contribution of participatory grantmakers in strengthening communities and movements, not just through their grants but also through their grantmaking processes and additional support in areas of capacity building and solidarity.
While participatory funding models have been in existence for several decades, particularly in the US, we have been seeing an increase in international participatory grantmaking initiatives. More and more funders are questioning how to increase their transparency and accountability to the people affected by their grants and recognizing the added value of leveraging the knowledge and insights of the community. This is an exciting trend that will likely continue to grow.
When we organized our first joint session on participatory grantmaking at IHRFG in 2014 in New York, the room was packed, but the questions posed to us focused on understanding the benefits and challenges on the WHY: the general concept of participatory grantmaking. In other words, why go through all that trouble? It was, as we experienced it, not widely understood as ‘common sense’ at all, although some colleagues in the field did express admiration for our courage and innovativeness.
Recognizing the relevance of learning from each other as participatory grantmakers, explicitly opening up to other participatory funders and interested peers, and eagerly aiming to be more strategic in sharing our learning, we established the international donor working group on participatory grantmaking which is hosted jointly by IHRFG and ARIADNE. Through this platform, we share relevant resources and food for thought. Each of our funds routinely fields questions about how we actually do participatory grants, and we are eager to learn and share what we have learned.
At the recent IHRFG conference in San Francisco, four diverse funders (FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund, Disability Rights Fund, Red Umbrella Fund, and the Wikimedia Foundation) convened a session on the practicalities of participatory grantmaking. In other words, the ‘how-to’ of participatory grantmaking. The room was packed with funders, all of whom were either somewhat or completely convinced of the benefits of participatory grantmaking, but only few who had actual participatory grantmaking experience. Most funders acknowledged the potential benefits of participatory grantmaking in areas of movement building and leadership development, and in the shared power and transparency of such approaches, but had very specific questions about the HOW.
The concept of participatory grantmaking puts decision making in the hands of activists on the ground, who, we believe, hold a type of expertise that funders will probably never have. But the model can also be threatening and challenging. There are many technical and operational issues to unravel, such as cost and conflict of interest. And also, internal politics, as was shared by some brave private foundations with a healthy sense of self-criticism and a twist of humour. How can we develop a model that allows us to (cost-)effectively share power, while effectively staying in power? Because honestly, how can a Board of Trustees of a foundation aimed at ending social inequalities ever be convinced of the benefits of a more effective grantmaking strategy that requires sharing power? Organizational change takes time and for foundations that are not explicitly set up within or in support of a social movement, the thought of community leadership within their own decision making structures may be daunting, but step-by-step processes and hybrid models can be considered.
There is still much room for innovation and iteration in the field of participatory grantmaking. While we have taken action to assess, document, and share our good practices and lessons learned (see for example from ‘Funding Knowledge the Wiki Way‘ about the Wikimedia Foundation and about the FRIDA Fund, ‘Letting the Movement Decide’), it is clear that the need is high as funders are eager to get the tools to feel more comfortable moving from rhetoric to practice to actually iterate participatory grantmaking.
Members of the IHRFG/ARIADNE participatory funder working group are planning next steps, including creating a FAQ on participatory grantmaking, developing a guide for grantmakers, and expanding the venues where discussions on this funding model occur. Stay tuned and join us!
Diana Samarasan is founding executive director at Disability Rights Fund, Inc
Nadia van der Linde is coordinator of the Red Umbrella Fund
Nevin Öztop is resource mobilization officer of FRIDA
Katy Love is senior program officer at Wikimedia Foundation