Funders need to let go


Dennis van Wanrooij


The 2017 EDGE Funders Alliance annual conference was my first funder conference; we never forget the first time! I came into the space as a participatory grantmaker with no idea how popular our work was. I would introduce myself and say: ‘I am Dennis, and I am with the Red Umbrella Fund, the one and only international fund for sex workers’ rights.’

Many would then respond: ‘Wow, I’m so glad to meet you! I’ve heard a lot about your work and I would like to know more.’ I was both flattered and surprised at the same time; but what struck me was the motivation and sense of urgency in that connection. Funders really want to embrace participatory grantmaking, and they want to know how. What I didn’t understand is why?

As a community-led fund, sex workers are the majority represented in all of our organizational structures: the board, program advisory committee and also our staff. Those who are considered the most vulnerable, marginalized, and excluded from our societies are the ones who make the decisions.

The community sets the funding priorities and selects the grants. Participation is the ethos that guides our work at all organizational levels and inspires everything we do.

In order to truly commit to a participatory process, I said, and repeated many times during the conference, ‘funders need to let go!’ – and we can’t only let go where it feels convenient.

Participatory grantmaking is a true commitment to enabling communities and movements most impacted by the decisions to make them. This philosophy can be shaped in different ways, but the motivation needs to go beyond mere engagement with the communities and movements. It’s far more revolutionary than that.

As a former member of the Red Umbrella Fund’s peer review panel and current staff member, I have learned that participation is not just about making grant decisions. It’s about re-thinking your role as a funder on a daily basis, and seeking community participation in all layers of our work.

Day to day, I don’t see myself as a funder but as a colleague, a fellow community member of our grantees. In order to get to true participation, funders have to partner with, support with, and learn with them.

During the Conference, it occurred to me that we do not need everyone to become a participatory grantmaker. It makes sense that some organizations may not fully be able commit to this ethos. Rather, what we need is to scale up participatory grantmaking.

As mentioned by Ivens Reis Reyner from Mama Cash in the closing panel, ‘existing participatory grantmakers have few resources to do this really hard work’. We need to first get money to those who are seriously committed to the cause and learn from them.

Resources are hard to get and participatory grantmakers are struggling with complex organizational structures: working in multiple languages, reaching populations that other funders might not be able to reach. This work needs to be expanded, trusted, and better funded.

Let’s stop talking about the risks funders make when they cede power. What I want to talk about is the risks sex workers and other populations take when advocating for their rights in highly criminalized and hostile environments. The risks we take, as funders, pale in comparison.

Instead, let’s reflect on our motivations and move toward implementing more meaningful participatory structures. We can create change, not only by giving out money, but also by setting an example.

Dennis van Wanrooij is a Programme Associate with the Red Umbrella Fund.

You can read more from the 2017 EDGE Funders annual conference here.

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