Participatory grantmaking (PGM) may be a new trend in philanthropy, but participatory and community-driven giving practices have been around since the beginning of time. From Indigenous understanding of how gift money behaves in a community to the mutual aid networks of Black communities in the US, there is a lot for philanthropy to learn from those who have been systematically excluded from it.

Movement leaders have long critiqued a “nonprofit industrial complex” for “blunting political goals to satisfy government and foundation mandates.” With the rise of billionaire philanthropy today, more and more people are questioning the logic of allowing those who extracted the most wealth from the economy being the ones to decide how to distribute it.

As a practitioner of participatory grantmaking for 10 years, I have been thrilled to see the conversation turn from a trickle into a stream, and I offer this information to those on the journey of embedding community governance into their decision-making. The work is an ongoing practice of naming power dynamics, embedding equity, ensuring transparency, and for those with privilege and power, letting go.


The Modern-Day (Re)Emergence of Participatory Grantmaking

The Funding Exchange, founded in 1979, is often seen as initiating PGM within modern philanthropy. The group, founded by young progressive activists with inherited wealth, called for “change, not charity.” Their model of “activist-advised grantmaking” was used by 16 organizations across the USA, many of which remain active today.

Another early mover is the Southern Partners Fund, formerly the Bert and Mary Meyer Foundation. In 1994, they turned their foundation over to grassroots community leaders in the rural South. They developed one of the coolest community governance models I’ve seen, with a membership group of which at least 80 percent must come from leaders of currently or previously funded grassroots organizations.

By 2016, the Human Rights Funder Network had a working group on PGM, whose findings ultimately informed the GrantCraft Guide on Participatory Grantmaking. This guide defines PGM as follows: “Participatory grantmaking cedes decision-making power about funding decisions—including the strategy and criteria behind those decisions—to the very communities that a foundation aims to serve.”  Around the same time, the Global Fund Community Foundation introduced the hash-tag #ShiftThePower to help bring together the global movement of community philanthropy.

Although many PGM practitioners were connected before, it wasn’t until 2020 when Hannah Paterson, as part of her research on PGM, began convening practitioners monthly. This monthly gathering turned into the Participatory Grantmakers Community, which now has over 600 members from around the world.


Starting a PGM Practice

There are many ways that PGM programs come to be and identifying their origins can be helpful to understand the power dynamics that might be in play. The following are three ways I’ve seen PGM practices emerge:

While it is critical to democratize decision-making within foundations, completely changing power dynamics within existing entities can take a long time. A quick and easy way to support community-led processes is to fund existing membership groups like the Right to the City Alliance and HEAL Food Alliance, as well as Indigenous-led funds and other people-of-color-led, movement-accountable public foundations.


Who Participates?

There are many ways to define the participants in a PGM process:

  • Donor/Funder – those who have the money
  • Donor/funder staff – people hired by donors and foundations for intermediaries
  • Sector experts – people with expertise in the field where the funding is directed
  • Nonprofits – organizations working to achieve specific charitable outcomes
  • Individuals with lived expertise – individuals who directly experience the issues related to the funding area
  • Grant applicants – individuals or nonprofits requesting funding

In many PGM processes, participants may represent more than one category. For example, in the case of the Funding Exchange, the donors considered themselves both activists and donors. Another example is when foundations hire movement activists, who then become both activists and funder representatives.

Two key questions to address are which participants will have a majority voice in decision-making and how they are selected. For example, the Contigo Fund (contigo means “with you” in Spanish) has a grant committee of 12 people; more than half are LGBTQ Latinx-identified individuals; at least a quarter are not formally affiliated with existing nonprofits or foundations; and all are from the local community.

Another example is the Haymarket Peoples Fund where the funding panel is composed of up to 18 community organizers from across the six New England states. The funding panel has some additional rules to ensure accountability: all members must attend an anti-racism training within the first six months of their service and terms are for three years.


Deciding How to Decide

Once a PGM process is formed, an additional important step is to decide how the group will decide. Some common forms of group decision making are:

  • Unanimity/Consensus – everyone must agree to the decision or at least not object to it
  • Modified Consensus – most people agree to the decision (examples: unanimity minus one, or 80-percent agreement)
  • Ranked choice – people rank choices in order of preference (typically, with lower ranked choices reallocated until one option receives over half the votes)
  • Simple Majority – the decision receives votes from more than half of the people voting
  • Plurality – the decision receives more votes than any other choice

Winifred Olliff shares specific examples of group decision-making design in “How Should We Decide?” In addition to using the tools above, there are, of course, dozens of approaches that can be employed to make more complex decisions that extend beyond a binary yes/no vote.

I also want to recognize that there are ways to utilize non-western practices, such as:

  • Ceremony – uses Indigenous practices to inform decision making
  • Intuitive – harnesses semi-conscious knowledge and experience built over a lifetime to bring informed intelligence to grant decisions
  • Meditative – employs meditative practices to make grant decisions
  • Relationship-based – makes decisions based on existing relationships and networks

One common debate within the PGM community is whether a process can be truly participatory without legally ceding decision-making authority. Often, the board or trustees of a funding organization must legally approve the grants. But in other cases, the board delegates this authority completely. While some arrangements work in trust, ultimately it can do more harm than good to implement a PGM process if the funder isn’t ready to cede authority.


Models of PGM

There are a variety of different ways PGM programs are structured. Building on previous research done by Lani Evans in 2015, I’ve expanded and refined the different models of practice below to map emerging trends, help create shared language, and build out a typology for the field.

All the models listed below have both strengths and challenges. My hope is that providing more clarity will improve knowledge of how to set up a program and meet governance, operations, and facilitation needs.

  • Participatory Committees: this form, which is the most common in the PGM movement, mimics traditional philanthropy in that proposals are submitted based on a set of criteria/guidelines, and then a committee reviews those proposals and makes decisions. The Funding Exchange’s original Activist-Advised Grantmaking falls under this category. Some more specific subcategories are:
  • Collective Groups – this form of PGM uses different processes for proposal review and decision making where there are opportunities to include the people and organizations requesting funding, as well as members from the public. Proposals/funding requests are reviewed, and funding decisions made, through a collaborative group process where all participants have equal power. Below are some of the forms that have emerged in this category:


Beyond Grantmaking

Beyond grantmaking, foundations should apply a participatory lens to all aspects of their organization, from operations to their endowment. The Justice Funders’ Resonance Framework for Philanthropic Transformation has an incredibly helpful spectrum tool to map how all aspects of philanthropy can move from extraction to redistributing wealth and democratizing power. Moving beyond philanthropy, the Spectrum of Community Engagement to Ownership report by Rosa González offers a tool to map and revolutionize community engagement across multiple sectors.

Participatory governance is growing in the community investing space as well, such as the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative in Oakland, California, which utilizes a weighted community governance model that gives all co-op members a vote in choosing the governing body and major decisions, while prioritizing resident voice—part of a growing grassroots community-engaged investing movement.


Related Practices

There are many other forms of collaborative and democratized giving and decision making not included above. Among these are the following:

  • Giving Circles: donors come together and pool their dollars, deciding together where to give the money (and other resources such as volunteer time), and learning together about their community and philanthropy.
  • Giving Project: a program for activating a base of donor organizers across race and class created by Social Justice Fund NW that has now been replicated by many organizations doing this work as a way to engage donors in participatory grantmaking.
  • Community Centric Fundraising: practicing fundraising that centers community needs, instead of traditional ways of fundraising that uphold patriarchy, classism, and white supremacy.
  • Participatory Budgeting: a democratic process in which community members decide how to spend public money.
  • Trust-Based Philanthropy: building a healthier and more equitable nonprofit sector by providing multi-year unrestricted funding, streamlined applications and reporting, and commitments to transparency, dialogue, relationship-building, and mutual learning. Many PGM practitioners also embed trust-based practices into their programs.


Revaluing Gifting and Community

Gifts play a really important role in a healthy economy that we’ve mostly forgotten.

When we extract more than we should from people and the earth, and don’t release that money as gifts, we fail to achieve the transformation we need.

In philanthropy, the limited foundation money that flows out through grants feels more like the purchase of services, given how much control foundations often exert. Concepts like social return on investment and impact outcomes treat gift money as something that needs to be productive in the same way as investment dollars—as if business principles alone will solve global problems. We’ve lost sight of how gifts work differently—namely, by building relationships, trust, and community. 


Thanks to Katy Love, Hannah Paterson, Ruby Johnson, Rose Longhurst, Cynthia Gibson for sharing feedback and insights for this article.