Participatory grantmaking: it can be done – here’s how


Hannah Paterson and Katy Love


Creating collective decision-making processes is hard work, but with the right investments it can be a transformative experience for all who participate. Here’s how…

Over the course of our work, we’ve both created, participated in, and witnessed groups deliberating about decisions and achieving consensus in grantmaking. We have seen how powerful these experiences can be. Here we discuss we have learned so far.

Hannah: The relationships that come out of a participatory grantmaking process can be transformative. Participants come from totally different backgrounds to learn from each other. Through this process, I have seen people develop both personal and professional connections they might not otherwise have done. This can provide networks of solidarity, sharing of resources and collaborative working on specific topics. For example, people have exchanged organisational policies and practices, applied for funding together, and offered support for others during times of need. I even learned of someone who changed her career trajectory after participating in a collective deliberation process! People can be deeply inspired by those they meet and can make huge life change after participating.

Katy: It’s not as though people just walk into a room together, magic happens, and they walk out happy. Participatory grantmaking involves significant preparation and thought about values, context and desired outcomes. When I lead participatory grantmaking deliberations, I want to create an inclusive process, where people are encouraged to challenge themselves and each other, and where their voice is welcomed. I aim to create an environment of trust by allowing people space to get to know each other, and what matters to them. That involves work between the facilitator and the participant in advance of the meeting, and then creating a mix of engagement styles for the group. One of my favorite tools to recommend is The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-making by Lenny Lind and Sam Kaner.

Hannah: It’s a fine art managing a group of individuals ensuring there is equity in participation. You have to be able to balance the conversation, stop people from dominating, encourage and welcome quieter voices, manage conflict without dismissing it, stay on track, keep an eye on the time, recognise and challenge power imbalances and biases, manage the energy of the room, mix up the techniques used based on the group needs, and manage it all smoothly without alienating participants. It’s a massive juggling act and I think one of the most difficult skills to master. When this is done badly that’s when it can all go off the rails. Traditionally, funders aren’t facilitators, so working in this way involves either a lot of training and practice or bringing in an external facilitator.

Katy: The point about minimising inequities is an important one. I was a participant in a process where I found myself frustrated with the dynamics of the group: one person had the ability to sway the whole group easily, and someone else, who when they spoke, everyone seemed to almost immediately disagree. A facilitator should recognise these patterns and try to mitigate inequities. For instance, moving out of a big group conversation into pairs or smaller discussion groups, or using a ‘fishbowl technique’ can break up these dynamics.

Hannah: In the Lived Experience Leaders programme at The National Lottery Community Fund, we started our deliberations by talking about our values and our biases, what our knowledge gaps were, and how we wanted to be challenged. We aimed to create an environment of honesty and openness. To achieve this we used different techniques to facilitate the decisions and discussions, with people moving around the room to vote with their feet, asking questions like ‘what would you like to fund?’ and ‘what should we fund?’ to explore different opinions and the reasons why those questions resulted in different answers. We made it active and enjoyable, which enabled people to have a say in the conversation without necessarily having to speak if they didn’t want to. This led to the choice of a strong set of grants that we could all be proud of and say we collectively contributed to.

Katy: In my experience of participatory grantmaking processes, I’ve seen plenty of frustration and conflict but this is often natural, and even good learning; it should not be avoided! When a group of people who previously didn’t know each other leave a deliberation feeling good about the outcome, feeling that they were both challenged and heard, feeling that they contributed, feeling solidarity with each other, that is success.

Hannah: Deliberative experiences are by far the most exciting, engaging and informative aspect of my role. It’s a pleasure to be able to bring people together and learn things I would never have expected to within funding decisions. I feel much more secure in the decisions I make through a process like this.

Hannah Paterson works at The National Lottery Community Fund where she led on the design and delivery of the Leaders with Lived Experience programme, a funding programme co-designed with people who use their experience of a social issue to improve the lives of those in a similar situation.

Katy Love is an independent consultant who formerly worked as director of the grantmaking team at the Wikimedia Foundation. She has led and participated in many local, national and international participatory grantmaking programmes.

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