Capacity Building / Collaborative Funding / Grantmaking Practice

Paradigm Shift: Participatory Grantmaking Comes of Age

Contributed by Matthew “Matty” Hart, Principal, The Lafayette Practice-

Over the past year or two you may have heard more about Participatory Grantmaking, an innovative grantmaking approach pioneered by several progressive grantmaking funds.

Also referred to as peer review grantmaking, community funding, or activist funding, participatory Screen-Shot-2014-04-14-at-8.04.55-AMgrantmaking emerges from the practice of grassroots activism. The idea is to engage the community more than traditional philanthropy does, essentially turning the grantmaking process on its head. It is grounded in the belief that if affected communities participate in decision-making, grants will be allocated to those most able to create long-lasting change.

Participatory Grantmaking Funds (PGFs) represent an important evolution in the form and practice of philanthropy, with benefits including innovation, flexibility, transparency and inclusion. PGFs can serve as a powerful intermediary between grassroots organizing and traditional donors, functioning as learning hubs for institutional donors and participants. They often offer significant technical assistance and support in addition to grants. In doing so, they help build the capacities of their grantees and their communities of concern.

Ever since the Funding Exchange, a network of North American grantmakers, adopted the model in the early 1970s, participatory grantmaking has proliferated not just in the US but around the world. Our study, Who Decides: How Participatory Grantmaking Benefits Donors, Communities, and Movements (funded by The Levi Strauss Foundation and an anonymous donor), looks closely at eight international PGFs, which was just a sampling. We found that these funds, although they evolved separately, have shared many of the same values, challenges and successes.

Many traditional donors already have an established funding model, and it’s working well. The question we hope you’ll engage with is whether participatory grantmaking is something you can add to your methodological mix as part of your overall strategy. The Lafayette Practice, the Disability Rights Fund, FRIDA |The Young Feminist Fund, the Red Umbrella Fund, and other participants in a panel at IHRFG’s 2014 New York conference argue that participatory grantmaking has come of age.

FRIDA is just one of the PGFs that are challenging top-down philanthropy by empowering the community groups and projects that they fund. A global PGF with teams based in Korea, Mexico, and Serbia, FRIDA strengthens young feminist groups and movements working on human rights, including reproductive justice, sexuality rights, and gender-based violence. Its co-coordinator, Ruby Johnson, explains that FRIDA’s grantmaking contributes to building multi-generational movements, increases and improves resources for young feminist activism, and ensures that young feminists are present in advocacy spaces. Applicants for funding vote for where the grants go within their region. FRIDA trusts them to make these decisions, which is key to creating leadership and shifting dynamics in philanthropy. It also enables FRIDA to reach grassroots groups to keep movements growing, Ruby says. Applicants can learn and share experiences, remaining accountable to each other rather than just to the funder.

The progress made by PGFs doesn’t mean that traditional philanthropy is broken. It just means that participatory grantmaking is available as a new mechanism to add to your toolbox. It can enable you to support new community-based work, expand your effective grantmaking practices to small and mid-size grantees, improve impact, and allow your communities of concern to develop approaches and innovations in a context of mutual support.

Is the participatory approach right for all funders? No. Adopting the participatory approach, even for a segment of your funding work, comes with challenges — after all, almost any bottom-up decision-making process means increased complexity. But within the challenges lie significant benefits.

There is the potential for conflicts of interest both among board members and among the peer reviewers upon whom they rely to make funding decisions, but PGFs have developed processes to deal with such concerns. Unlike in traditional grantmaking, participatory grantmaking involves large numbers of people with diverse experiences. It demands shared understanding and clarity about all parts of the process. Conflicts of interest are acknowledged and addressed openly to make the decision-making process more accessible, equitable, transparent and authentic.

There is also a perception that PGFs require too much time and money, but participatory grantmaking redefines efficiency in terms of decisions that emerge from a thorough understanding of the implications of funding. Diana Samarasan, executive director of the Disability Rights Fund, explains that funders and activists can lose time and money in the long run without community input throughout the grantmaking process. Without an understanding of the field, traditional funding strategies can go wrong, and although including people with disabilities in the DRF structure adds accessibility costs, Diana says this has been money well spent.

Although the structural model for grantmaking in PGFs may incur additional costs, it brings added value in terms of connecting organizations, building movements, and increasing philanthropic literacy for grantees, which can strengthen their own fundraising, movement-building and leadership efforts.

Sam Avrett at the Fremont Center explains how peer-led grantmaking can yield greater impact. “Grants are targeted more accurately and more widely when guided by multiple perspectives. Application, review and reporting processes are made better when shaped by people with practical front-line program experience.”

A participatory approach requires more capacity from its communities of concern. But the technical assistance, capacity-building and coaching offered by PGFs enable groups to pursue additional funding moving forward, often from traditional institutional donors. At the same time, participation in funding decisions promotes solidarity between peer review panelists and grant-seekers, who begin exploring ways to convene, formally share knowledge, and build and leverage their power.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in adding a participatory element to your grantmaking is where to go next. Fortunately, after three decades of experience, experimentation, and learning, there is help. An existing participatory grantmaker working in your area of concern can help you explore this model. See below for a list.

You can also join the working group on participatory grantmaking hosted by IHRFG and Ariadne. It includes an online community in which donors can explore and share lessons on peer-led funding models. Contact Azeen Salimi for more information.

Whether you partner with other funders in a group or create your own PGF as an addition to your current funding structures, we believe that the PGF model is worthy of reproduction and further investment. An exploration of participatory grantmaking may give you deeper insight, let you hear voices that were inaudible before, and allow you to realize the efficiencies that this collaborative approach brings to broad-based movement development and social justice grantmaking. It may even lead us all toward a more democratic philanthropy.

For more information, see Who Decides: How Participatory Grantmaking Benefits Donors, Communities and Movements, a report from The Lafayette Practice, contact Matthew Hart at, or connect with one of these peer funders:

One thought on “Paradigm Shift: Participatory Grantmaking Comes of Age

  1. Pingback: Lafayette Practice's "Who Decides" Report Featured in Human Rights Funding News - The Lafayette Practice

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