November 9, 2020; Ford Foundation

In the midst of taking up much larger questions about the effects of structural inequities on US democracy, a conversation about the use and abuse of money-based power in philanthropy has also been picking up steam. Inquiries have focused on the use of philanthropy to practice a sanctified kind of oligarchy and intervene by virtue of money in systems that are supposed to be guided by the public. They have focused on the taint of money made through exploitation and spent for personal redemption or even merely as a hobby. But there has been less discussion about how to interrupt those very familiar dynamics.

Now, we have this personal essay by Chris Cardona, a grant officer at the Ford Foundation, who reveals that his institution has been experimenting, studying, and toying with the concept of “participatory grantmaking” for at least five years. The import of this is obvious, since many are of the opinion that Ford very often leads where foundation practice is concerned—it is influential.

We encourage you to read the full essay, since it contains plenty of thought-provoking observations about how he came to fully understand the extent to which he had to change his own practice even to fairly investigate what the shift would entail. In the end, the project has funded nine research projects on various aspects of participatory grantmaking. Cardona describes both the process and the surprising results that came from even its most elemental parts—the expansiveness and inclusiveness led to projects he would not necessarily have chosen, but in retrospect were right.

Even in this essay, he gives over to the voices of those doing research related to Ford’s inquiry. Here are two of the rich descriptions of the research being performed at those nine projects:

Women’s Funding Network

The Women’s Funding Network is a community of gender and racial justice funders that grew out of the feminist equity movement in the 1980s, as an organizing power for place-based community foundations that fund through a gender-lens. Today, the network includes local women’s funds across the United States and in 11 countries, national and international funders, grassroots organizations and individuals. Through the network, WFN provides gender justice leaders and advocates with a variety of tools to help them succeed—from research and education, to strategic-led initiatives and events, to advocacy and unifying a collective, amplified voice.

Working with the women’s funds in the network, WFN engaged with the Ford Foundation to examine the participatory grantmaking practices of place-based women’s funds. As local funders, women’s funds have a long history of collaborative grantmaking practices that include the voices of those their programming aims to support, and with the cross-sector partnership of local stakeholders. This work lifted up the many ways in which women’s funds conduct their grantmaking, leadership, and advocacy work that include the principles of participatory grantmaking to involve all members of the community from donors, to educational institutions, grantee partners and the community members impacted by their funding and programming. Many women’s funds have an over 10-year history of intentionally applying these principles, and some are newer to the practices, but all of the philanthropic partners in this study do embrace a systems approach that centers the voices of individuals and communities they work to support.

In light of the COVID-19 health and economic crisis, along with the accelerated movement for Black Lives Matter and emphasis on racial justice, women’s funds have applied this year, more than ever, the flexibility and adaptability necessary in philanthropy to respond to the immediate need in their communities by shifting their grantmaking to operational dollars, and thus making room for grantees to provide the response where the community needs it most, and in setting up rapid response funds to disperse immediate funding to where their communities have identified emergency need.

The Women’s Funding Network is hopeful that philanthropy can build on the research that will come from this study, and follow the lead of these hyper-local “first responders” in philanthropy, to also center the voices of those most impacted by injustice and inequality and allow for community decision-making and sharing in the power that comes from these participatory practices.

Disability Rights Fund (DRF)

In partnership with BLE Solutions and a research board of persons with disabilities, our project examines DRF’s more than a decade of experience as a participatory grantmaker operating in step with the disability movement’s slogan “nothing about us without us.” Specifically, we are assessing the link between participation of persons with disabilities at all levels of decision-making—in governance, grantmaking committee and among staff—and our effectiveness in enabling organizations of persons with disabilities to successfully advocate for rights. Our hypothesis is that having persons with disabilities in decision-making roles within the organization and, through grants, within the community, is the primary enabling factor in achievement of more than 240 national and local changes to legislation, policy and government programs to better support the rights of persons with disabilities around the world.

Participation matters now more than ever. Paraphrasing from a letter to the editor to the Chronicle of Philanthropy co-written by DRF Executive Director Diana Samarasan and philanthropy consultant Katy Love, the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have shone a spotlight on the precariousness of societies that value the lives and opinions of people who are wealthy (as well as those perceived as healthy) more than the lives and opinions of those who are not. When some are marginalized, everyone is at risk. In a recent global survey about the impact of COVID-19 on persons with disabilities, 84 percent of persons with disabilities in Uganda noted a lack of access to food, and 44 percent of women and girls with disabilities in Rwanda reported that COVID-19 stay-at-home measures have fueled gender-based violence. In this context, philanthropy needs to examine its own power dynamics and their impact on change (or lack thereof). Funders must not presume they know the solutions. Instead, they must not only ask people who are affected for input, but they must also cede money and power to those with lived experience.

Cardona, who says he worked closely with consultant Cynthia Gibson on the shape and implementation of this strategy, writes that these inquiries are part of a set of “longstanding calls for philanthropy to shift practices and share power.”

“Through the participatory process by which we selected these research projects,” he writes, “and from the future results of the projects themselves, we hope to continue learning about—and leaning into—these shifts in practice and power.”—Ruth McCambridge

Disclosure: The Ford Foundation is a current funder of NPQ, and Chris Cardona is its grant officer.