Participatory funding – the power of letting go


Anne Burghardt


If we are genuine advocates of democracy and civic participation, how come we are so sceptical of letting the public decide what to spend our money on? As a foundation professional, I was part of a very interesting discussion on participatory elements in funding[1] at the annual EFC AGA and Conference in Warsaw this year.

I remembered how I first started working for a foundation and (successfully) tried to replace a jury system with a public online decision-making process in one of our programmes. Back then, I was faced with a lot of scepticism, not only within the foundation but also from our partner organization. I went through discussions in which I had to contend with fear of losing control, fear of manipulation, fear of public shaming, fear of one project unfairly dominating the others and so on and so forth.

Even former grantees from different sorts of non-profit organizations were sceptical. Some of them liked the idea but many were afraid that they would not have got any money if the public had chosen. Some even claimed they would not have participated in the programme had the projects been chosen in an online process.

Listening to the people on the podium, to the facilitator and to the other participants in the room, I realized that my experience was not confined to my foundation and the programme I was working for, but that this was a widely discussed and controversial topic within the non-profit community in Europe and probably beyond.

So back to my initial question: if we are genuine advocates of democracy and civic participation, how come we are so sceptical of letting the public decide what to spend our money on – money which we basically receive as a gift from the public in form of tax-exempt donations?

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe that foundations are obliged to ask anybody how to spend their money, as long as they act within their legal boundaries.

Participatory elements in funding might not be the right tool for all of us and for all contexts. Obviously, some decisions are better made by experts.

However, in one area, special expertise is not always needed for decision-making and expert and public opinion can be fruitfully combined – when it comes to supporting civic engagement in the community.

If a foundation’s goal is to foster civic engagement and democracy, why not make a point of actually including elements of democracy in our portfolio? We keep telling people how important it is to go to the polls, what a decisive role civil society plays in our democratic systems, that everybody should participate in their communities and even co-create them.

We trust them to make local, regional, national and even international political decisions by going to the polls and choosing our government but we do not trust them to choose the projects that best fit their needs and those of their fellow citizens.

Democratic participation and co-creation are fundamental principles of engagement and an important motive for socially-engaged people. Civic engagement itself is a constitutive element of democracy. A vital democracy that goes beyond a ‘spectator democracy’ needs citizens who are involved in political decision-making, who participate in social questions and who are willing and able to co-create society through their involvement.

However, such an involvement can only prosper in a society where an atmosphere of participation and dialogue is self-evident. I am convinced that foundations can promote such an atmosphere by encouraging people to form and voice an opinion on the projects that apply for funding.

By letting the public participate in the selection process, we not only reflect a high degree of appreciation, respect and trust, we also encourage them to get involved themselves and to take voluntary, socially oriented, public and collaborative action for the benefit of social cohesion and the quality of the community.

Besides the strengthening of democratic thought, the introduction of a public selection process has a lot of other advantages: we can create additional panels for dialogue on the different projects and maybe even create new ideas and networks. The projects that are up for public selection processes will get additional visibility, so participatory elements in funding might even function as boosters for further engagement by the voters and for the transfer of good ideas to other contexts.

Additionally, non-profit organizations and their different fields of action are brought to public attention which might attract new (young) volunteers.

Last but not least, including the public in selection processes can serve as a seismograph for what the public see as key social questions which we, as foundations, can use to design new programmes that truly fit the needs of our audiences.

Participatory elements in our decision-making processes are not only nice to have; they are a vital means to putting our money where our mouth is. Let us be courageous and let people get involved in our work and our decisions, even though we might lose some control. Not only might we actually gain in impact on our communities.

In view of debates around the power of foundations, their legitimacy and the transparency of their actions, we might even take an important step towards broader awareness and acceptance for our own work. So let’s let go of some fear and some power.

Anne Burghardt works at the Robert Bosch Foundation and is writing in a personal capacity.


  1. ^ Briefly, this means involving members of the public in – and by implication, some responsibility for – the funding decisions of an institution, in this case a foundation.

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