How to do participatory grantmaking online during COVID-19


Katy Love and Winifred Ollif


Can funders manage participatory decision-making during a pandemic? Yes! We know participatory grantmaking can be effective online because we’ve done it.

Calls are growing for funders to open up their decision-making and share power with communities – the latest high-profile call among them coming from a piece by Gara LaMarche in the Nation.

Participatory grantmaking is an approach that hands over decision-making power about grants to those impacted by the grants, and when done well, it can bring equity practice into our work as grantmakers. Because the impacts of COVID-19 are disproportionately experienced by people who are often left out of decision-making, it’s critical for philanthropy to make this change now.

To support philanthropy organisations seeking to manage participatory grantmaking remotely, we share three challenges that they might face when doing participatory grantmaking online and offer recommendations for addressing them. These recommendations will be most useful for facilitators managing programmes.

Communication: Making connections doesn’t always feel natural online.

  1. Understand the communications needs of participants. Question your assumptions and gather feedback continuously.
  2. Open up and manage several communication channels, including formal and informal channels. Balance your use of text-based communication and non-verbal information.
  3. Ensure you have backchannels available to communicate privately with participants and to contact them when they are not responsive on the group’s other channels.
  4. Choose communication methods that are accessible to people with disabilities.

Engagement: When asking people to engage online, we must fight habits around passively consuming information online and dividing attention across platforms or devices.

  1. Be clear and realistic about responsibilities and expectations for engagement and secure commitment from all participants to these expectations. 
  2. Expect that response rates may not be 100 per cent. Avoid designs that have a single point of failure and consider processes that accommodate larger groups, optional participation, and flexible decision-making rules.
  3. Use a variety of facilitation tools and techniques and adapt them to an online environment. Don’t rely only on passive communication styles, such as long and uninterrupted lecture formats.
  4. Avoid middle class standard time by reducing expectations for what you can achieve in a meeting. Planning longer meetings online is possible but challenging. You might consider a series of shorter meetings in lieu of lengthy meetings.

Technology: We have all experienced painful technical challenges, especially with ensuring every participant on a video call can be seen and heard.

  1. Know your tools. Thoroughly test any new tool you introduce. Create and share guidelines for using your tools and addressing technical difficulties. Consider the suitability of the tool you are using for your intended purposes.
  2. Always anticipate technical challenges. Plan time for resolving technical challenges and plan activities at the start of the meeting to engage participants waiting on the line. Keep calm, as unnerving as these experiences can be; they always occur!
  3. Secure commitment to equitable participation from the entire group. Technical challenges are not equally distributed. Resolving these may require trade offs. Offer solutions where you can, and budget for equipment, training, or internet access.
  4. Communicate about safety and security early and often. Safety and security needs may vary significantly among participants, so it’s best not to make assumptions. 

Moving to a fully online approach creates opportunities as well. You may be able to include people in your participatory grantmaking process who would not have been able to attend in-person meetings. It may be more possible and even more affordable to take participatory grantmaking beyond the local level when working online. And finally, you will be able to accommodate a different range of communication styles and preferences. Many opportunities for creativity and joy will emerge as you adapt your participatory grantmaking approach to a fully online environment.

Katy Love helps funders and philanthropic organisations become participatory, accountable, equitable, and transparent, yielding more just and effective grants. Winifred Olliff engages networks and collectives to influence systems through network weaving and experimentation, specialising in nontraditional grantmaking practice.

Tagged in: Covid-19

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