A self-assessment tool for foundations on participatory practices


Diana Samarasan and Katy Love


With the fragile state of democracy, growing inequality, social movements calling for action, and demands to address systemic injustices, philanthropic institutions are increasingly exploring participatory grantmaking. It seems that the concept of participation – involving people who are impacted by the grants a foundation gives – is resonating with philanthropic institutions. But do foundations know how to integrate participation?

We hear from funders again and again that they are interested in incorporating participation into their work, sometimes beyond grantmaking, but they just don’t know how to do it or where to start. Even with the increasing number of reports, webinars, and blog posts about participatory grantmaking, funders are seeking something hands-on, practical, and action-oriented to meaningfully advance participatory practices.

Over the last few years, using a participatory approach, we (Diana Samarasan and Katy Love) have developed a tool that we hope can address this need. We are two experienced practitioners and passionate advocates of participation and power shifting in philanthropy. Formerly the founding executive director of the Disability Rights Fund, Diana is an independent consultant with expertise in disability rights and inclusion and participatory philanthropy. Katy works closely with foundations to help them shift power and adopt participatory practices and has led or supported 50+ participatory processes with a variety of foundations. We are members of the Participatory Grantmaking (PGM) Community, and were members of a previous community of practice supported by HRFN and part of the group of instigators for the Candid / Grantcraft Guide Deciding Together on participatory grantmaking! We are excited that this momentum has built in philanthropy.

A few years ago, we started out with the idea of creating a Participatory Audit tool. Our initial thinking was to create an external audit process, much like a gender or equity audit, where a foundation could invite in stakeholders, including grantees, to assess participation of people impacted by its funding in foundation policies, procedures, practices, and culture. The assessment would be a kind of external evaluation and produce a score and a set of recommendations.

Seemed like a pretty good idea… or maybe not?

To figure that out, we interviewed a number of people with expertise in social audits as well as change in philanthropy. Overwhelmingly, these folks advised us to use a ‘gentler’ approach that invited internal assessment, reflection, and action planning at least as a first phase. Part of their reasoning was about where philanthropic commitment to participation was versus commitment to gender and other forms of equity. We took their advice, and changed our course of action, and set back the idea of an actual external audit for now.

Based on our research and many interviews, we developed the ‘Advancing Participation in Philanthropy Tool.’ It is a self-assessment mechanism for grantmakers to gauge where they currently fall in terms of participatory practices across all their areas of work and operations, and where they want to go. The tool will serve as a basis for internal dialogue and goal setting or action planning. This tool considers the levels of participation across the ‘functional’ areas of a foundation (e.g. governance, communications, evaluation, grantmaking, etc). That scale is from Level 1: No Participation to Level 4: Full Participation. Organized along indicators under each functional area, foundation staff can self-assess where their practice currently stands and where there might be openings for increased participation. We reviewed a large number of tools and practices along the way, including Justice Funders’ Resonance Framework, Global Fund for Community Foundation’s Community-led Assessment Tool, the Human Rights Funders Network/Ariadne/Gender Co_Lab’s Principles Project, Maggie Potapchuck’s Transforming Organizational Culture Assessment Tool, Candid’s Glasspockets, and many more.

Community input has played a significant role in the development of this tool. In our initial research, we spoke with members of the participatory grantmaking and larger philanthropic community. Next, we invited a group of people, many of whom are members of the PGM community, to serve as a ‘Reference Group,’ offering feedback on an early draft of the tool. We also invited community feedback in a workshopping session open to all members of the participatory grantmaking community. All the feedback we’ve gotten so far has undoubtedly improved the tool.

After receiving interest from over 40 foundations, we invited a diverse group of 20 foundations to see how this tool functions in real life scenarios and within organizations. These foundations are big and small, private family institutions and public intermediaries, at the beginning of their journey or deeply embedded in participatory practices already. This pilot phase is a key component of the tool’s development, to ensure that the tool is as relevant and useful to as diverse a group of foundations as possible. The pilot phase ends in April. From there, we plan to make changes based on the input – perhaps substantial changes.

After we make improvements, we will focus on the design of the tool, including accessibility, as well as translation into two other languages. We are eager to share it with the wider world and hope it can meet the need to continuously iterate in order to shift power in our field.

We have received funding support from Porticus Foundation and fiscal sponsorship from Salzburg Global Seminar – both of which are doing other work to raise the importance of participation in philanthropy. We have also received peer support and expertise from the Participatory Grantmaking Community. We are grateful for all of this support and camaraderie in the critical cultural shift about who is involved, especially in decision-making, when it comes to making decisions in philanthropy!

Please reach out to us if you’d like to add support and/or stay updated about this tool: dianasamarasan.work@gmail.com and katylovework@gmail.com 

Diana Samarasan Founding Executive Director of the Disability Rights Fund and the Disability Rights Advocacy Fund. Katy Love helps funders and philanthropic organisations become participatory, accountable, equitable, and transparent, yielding more just and effective grants.

Tagged in: Funding practice Transformation on the agenda

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