Giving Compass' Take:

• Cynthia M. Gibson explains that philanthropists are examining participatory grantmaking as a way to successfully include non-grantmaking entities in the decision process of allocating resources.

• Are you ready to engage in participatory grantmaking? How can you overcome COVID-19  barriers to participatory grantmaking?

• Read more about the role of participatory grantmaking in philanthropy.

This article comes from the summer 2019 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly as part of a cluster of articles on the subject of accountability to stakeholders. It includes excerpts from “Lessons from Citizen Journalism—the Promise of Citizen Philanthropy,” an essay in the report Global Media Philanthropy: What Funders Need to Know About Data, Trends and Pressing Issues Facing the Field, published by Media Impact Funders in March 2019. 

Several years ago, a group of nonprofit and philanthropic executives met to explore ways to strengthen civic participation. They were joined by two practitioners who issued a challenge: Go beyond defining success as increased voting and volunteering numbers to creating civic cultures in which civic engagement is part of everyday life. That means seeing civic engagement as less a set of tactics and more a process through which people have opportunities to come together, identify common priorities, and take action to address them in ways they see as appropriate.

Two things, they said, are critical. First, a cross section of the community participates—not just those who are more inclined to do so. And second, community participants are seen as equal partners with—rather than constituents of or advisors to—traditional power brokers. That means ensuring everyone has the chance to be involved—not just experts but also “real people,” whose lived experience is equally valuable when it comes to decisions affecting their lives.

Among them are growing distrust in—and demand for accountability from—traditional institutions; the democratization of fields and practices that were once largely the purview of experts and gatekeepers; and technological innovations that give people the chance to connect, collaborate, and crowdsource solutions to problems in spaces that are more transparent, and virtual.

These trends reflect a backlash against the “establishment” occurring in politics, higher education, the media, and other fields in which elite interests are perceived to have drowned out the concerns of ordinary people. Americans of all stripes and political persuasions have come to believe they have little say in guiding public decisions and improving the health and well-being of their communities.

Philanthropy hasn’t been immune to these trends. Faced with growing public critique, funders are taking a closer look at how they can be more accountable and transparent. Fieldwise, conversations about equity, diversity, community engagement, and inclusivity have snowballed.

One of the most visible indicators of this shift has been a movement to encourage donors to solicit feedback from—and really listen to—their grantees, beneficiaries, and other stakeholders. There’s no question that this is a positive and long-overdue shift for a field in which there’s a lot of talk about addressing the power dynamics rife in philanthropy, but comparatively less commitment to walking the talk.

Over time, some community foundations doing this work found that an element critical to impact was missing: the active, meaningful participation by the people who live in the neighborhoods and whose lives are most affected by the policies, systems, and structures targeted for change.

A growing number of other funders are also testing and using participatory approaches to philanthropy that upend how resources are allocated, by whom, and to what end. Specifically, they’re moving away from independently deciding what gets done to working with non-grantmakers—or “peers”—in all parts of the grantmaking process. Some are even partnering with them in making grant decisions.

Some see participatory grantmaking as one of many types of participatory philanthropy. Others see it as distinct, because it moves decision making about money to the people most affected by the issues donors are trying to address.

Read the full article about participatory grantmaking by Cynthia M. Gibson at Nonprofit Quarterly.