This article was first published on August 23, 2019.
In philanthropy, our role is to address inequalities and create fairer societies. Yet the dominant, traditional model of philanthropy is driven by people with wealth, or their paid staff. Unfortunately, this model often inadvertently perpetuates inequalities.
We are practitioners of participatory grantmaking, an approach where people with lived experience of issues of injustice and inequality decide where the philanthropic dollars that affect their lives go. This structural change in decision-making turns around a historically unequal system that has conflated wealth with wisdom. We work to center the voices of marginalized communities through philanthropy. We seek not only to hear the voices, but to share power through decision-making on grants.
We agree with Melinda Tuan of the Fund for Shared Insight (“Feedback and Participatory Grantmaking are Complementary”) that foundations should listen and seek feedback on their work. However, as Cynthia Gibson outlined in her original article (“Moving Beyond Feedback: The Promise of Participatory Grantmaking”), this means that foundations are still setting the agenda: deciding which questions to ask, who to listen to, and how to respond. At its best, quality listening is the foundation of positive and effective philanthropic relationships. But it often denies agency, positioning people as a source of insight rather than as agents of change. Ultimately, the approach relies on the good intentions of those in positions of power and influence.
Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All, writes that elites have taken control of social change efforts, in part through co-opting the language and determining the agenda for change. Listening, even when done well and with the right intentions, does not transform power dynamics. In fact, a commitment to listening alone can mask a lack of commitment to disrupting established hierarchies. As Gibson said, “Giving people opportunities to provide feedback is necessary but insufficient for breaking down power imbalances, especially if the people asking for that feedback are still making the ultimate decisions about the lives of the people providing it. The result is a loop back to the top-down, expert-driven system that’s ingrained in institutional philanthropy.”
We strongly urge foundations to move beyond a narrative of expert elites listening to beneficiary voices and towards adopting internal structural changes and practices that actively advance equity and justice. By ceding the head of the table to those most affected by the outcomes of the decisions, participatory grantmaking offers philanthropy an important tool for moving in that direction.
Examples of participatory grantmaking
FundAction: FundAction was founded on feedback. Initially a collaboration between four foundations, the idea for a participatory fund came in response to new democratic innovations that build alternatives to top-down models of social change. The design and launch of the fund was fully entrusted to a group of community activists, and FundAction was born in 2017. Since then, more than 30 grants have been disbursed to grassroots groups across Europe, using a process that builds cooperation, solidarity, and learning. Community organizers working in different contexts review each other’s proposals, ask (and answer) questions about the issues raised, and meet to deliberate over funding decisions. Every process is iterative; we collectively review each grant call to inform future calls, and we involve members in every aspect of decision-making. Our approach—peer-learning, non-hierarchical, deliberative decision-making—is fundamental to our intention for the organization we build to reflect internally the external world we seek to create.
Disability Rights Fund: “Nothing about us without us.” This famous disability rights movement slogan comes out of an extended struggle for persons with disabilities to be recognized as active members of society, rather than as passive recipients of services, medical interventions, or charity. The 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities mandated participation of persons with disabilities in rights implementation and achievement. Accordingly, when setting the frame for Disability Rights Fund (DRF), persons with disabilities themselves were and are involved at all levels—governance, advisory and staff—to model this needed paradigm shift. By having persons with disabilities in decision-making roles, DRF is helping to right a great societal wrong in which people with disabilities have not been valued as experts on their own lives. A seat at the table is different than being listened to; a seat at the table challenges long-standing inequalities in which some, simply by virtue of their wealth or perceived “expertise,” hold decision-making power over others’ lives.
UHAI EASHRI: In 2007, East African activists and funders met to interrogate organizing and funding for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex (LGBTI), and sex workers’ rights. Recognizing irreconcilable differences between the Western-driven world of money and civil society priorities on the continent, the convening activists resolved to create Africa’s first fund of—and by—LGBTI and sex-work activists to mobilize resources to the region, wherein local activists would decide themselves where to allocate available funding. UHAI, which means “life” in Swahili, was hence set up in 2009. UHAI members are activists who reside in a region where their identities are criminalized, where public opinion on sexual and gender diversity is adverse, and where governments actively shut down spaces to organize and efforts to preserve our life and health. Purposefully, communities fighting these oppressions and injustices daily themselves determine grants. In so doing, UHAI is advancing grassroots voice and power—we are not just providing resources to push for change; we are, more importantly, building community agency and leadership over the cause for social justice. Participatory grantmaking, for us, is changing the narratives of how human rights are resourced: from narratives of reliance on “foreign assistance” to ownership and self-determination by local communities.
Wikimedia Foundation: To increase the quality and quantity of free knowledge, we created grants programs to enable that work. Grantmaking priorities and funding decisions were developed with the same principles as Wikipedia: through sharing power, valuing inclusion, being transparent, and of course, seeking feedback and constructive criticism. Like Wikipedia, we believed that a single voice or perspective would not be as strong as that of a diverse group. Decision-makers represent diverse backgrounds and perspectives from the Wikimedia communities.
Participatory grantmaking is not a panacea to address the inequalities of our world. We readily admit this. While we seek other ways to upend power within philanthropy on a larger scale, as Giridharadas and others have advised, we also question societies that allow such gross accumulation of wealth and then turn to those who have accumulated such wealth to provide much-needed change in the public realm.
It is well past time for philanthropy to examine its role in entrenching power and privilege by amplifying the voice of elites. Participatory grantmaking will not solve this problem. But it is one small step towards addressing inequality and restoring the critical dialogue we are rapidly losing, as so many democracies falter around the world.
The Participatory Grantmaking Collective, including:
- Mutisya Leonard, Partnerships and Communication Officer, UHAI EASHRI
- Rose Longhurst, Member of The Edge Fund and FundAction
- Katy Love, former Director of Community Resources/Grantmaking, Wikimedia Foundation
- Diana Samarasan, Founding Executive Director, Disability Rights Fund/Disability Rights Advocacy Fund
- Nadia van der Linde, Coordinator, Red Umbrella Fund