7 best practices in participatory grantmaking


Kelley Buhles


Participatory grantmaking has been practiced in modern philanthropy for over 40 years, and beyond that, the act of communities determining how to distribute resources collectively has roots that go back farther than modern philanthropy.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with 10 groups who have been practicing participatory grantmaking in various forms for the past half century. I asked them about the values that drive their work, what lessons they have learned, and what pivots they have made over the years. While their missions, focus areas, and communities varied, their answers related to their participatory approaches had many common themes. The following seven best practices came up in almost all of my conversations with these wisdom holders in the field.

It’s worth noting that all of the groups I spoke with use Trust-Based practices and Flexible Funding, and often both. Both of these practices are incredibly important and powerful tools in philanthropy and deservingly are now being highlighted in the field.

Embed equity: All of the groups I interviewed emphasized the need to explicitly embed anti-racism, equity, and lived experience into their entire organization. A few of the groups that hadn’t embedding equity from their founding, started by working to embed anti-racism and equity in their grant programs and found that the process raised questions about leadership and governance throughout the organization. They realized this work couldn’t be done only within grantmaking programs. As a result, the organizations became more holistically community-led at every level. Unfortunately, at least two groups lost funding after being more explicit about their anti-racist values, demonstrating how deeply embedded racist beliefs remain in philanthropy. Ultimately, the lesson is that participatory grantmaking requires an equity lens. It is not enough to ask for volunteer proposal reviewers and expect to get a diverse set of voices. Practitioners need to look at the people participating to ensure they truly bring lived experience of the issues the funder is looking to address – and make the space accessible and safe as well.

Accessibility and compensation: Almost every group talked about the importance of making sure participants’ needs are met and removing any barriers to participation, such as payment, childcare, accessibility related to disabilities, or even paying attention to how people take in information – whether by video, text, or some other means. It is also important to be clear up front about what the expectations are for participants, how much of their time will it take. Some groups shared that if a process was asking too much of participants time and/or energy, then they knew they needed to pivot. Ultimately, recognizing that the participants’ wisdom is a resource needed by funders, it is best practice to compensate people for their time.

Feedback and iteration: Every organization spoke about their journey with participatory grantmaking an iterative process. Everyone had made adaptations over the years based on feedback collected from participants. Three groups specifically talked about how organizing trends change so much over time and how critical it is to adapt alongside changing movement needs. A few groups mentioned how processes can inadvertently shift back towards traditional philanthropic values depending on who is being listened to or based on pressure from certain stakeholders. However, everyone named that the work is to constantly be paying attention to and unpacking the power dynamics at play within participatory processes.

Mind the gap: Another theme was the need to be on the lookout for areas that grantmaking inadvertently leaves out. Identifying what issues were not showing up in grant requests helped them identify who was missing from their participatory grantmaking constellation. One group might, for example, have great BIPOC representation in their programs, but a lack of youth and people with disabilities. By looking at where the gaps are in their networks, they could work to engage people from different backgrounds and geographies, which helped to increase inclusion and widen their networks. Additionally, many groups were actively encouraging organizations to invite staff members who were not the Executive Director or senior leaders to participate. both to expand the variety of people engaged and to create more leadership opportunities.

Attend to safety: Seven of the 10 organizations interviewed noted explicitly the harm done by philanthropy to communities which impedes the building of trusting authentic relationships. When creating participatory processes it is important to ensure that the participants feel safe, and that more harm isn’t caused through the process. A few groups spoke about how community partners are often navigating collective trauma – and need space to care for each other. The Participatory Grantmaking Community webinar on How to Keep Participants Safe, is a great resource on this topic.

Invest in education: Six groups said education was needed within their organizations, grant review committees, and among funders/donors to understand anti-racism and equity in the wider political context. Two groups mentioned working with the Giving Project Model, which offers political and donor education across race and class to create locally accountable, community-led democratic grantmaking. 

Reimagine all aspects of the grant process: Funders looking to be more participatory often will invite community members and movement leaders to review proposals and make decisions about grants, either with or without the donors. This practice changes who decides, but often fails to change the extractive grant process and how decisions are made. These processes risk reinforcing the scarcity and competitive mindset brought by funders and don’t represent the participants’ world view. Some alternatives to traditional funding models are funding everyone at the same amount, and using a first-come-first-served model similar to mutual aid funding. A recent report from the Equality Fund called “Step Up, Step Back” shares how grantees will defer to other grantees more in need of funding when making decisions collectively, something we often see in the closed collective model of participatory grantmaking.

The ten organizations I spoke with are all doing amazing work in their communities and are at the leading edge of what is possible for participatory grantmaking. These organizations received grant funding to honor the time they spent sharing about their work. I encourage anyone reaching out to these groups to learn from them to offer appropriate payment as well.

  • Appalachian Community Fund
  • Borealis Philanthropy 
  • Emergent Fund
  • Hawai’i People’s Fund
  • Haymarket People’s Fund 
  • Liberated Capital, a fund of Decolonizing Wealth Project
  • Liberty Hill Foundation
  • North Star Fund
  • Potlatch Fund 
  • Southern Partners Fund

A longer version of this article was first published in Non-Profit Quarterly on 31 January 2023.

Kelley Buhles is an independent consultant that works with funders to design and embed participatory practices into their grantmaking and investing.

Tagged in: Funding practice

Comments (2)

Kelley Buhles

Hi Adriaan, Yes, I would say at this point the majority of people doing participatory grantmaking still have the funders/donors involved in the management and also in the decision making. There are various ways this happens, feel free to reach out if you are interested to learn more.

Adriaan Hebly

Is there "participatory grantmaking" whereby the funders/donors also join in the management team of the project, so that they have direct involvement in the spending of their monies?

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