Just like collaborative journalism approaches, participatory grantmakers not only acknowledge and talk about power; they break down barriers that keep people powerless through an approach that realigns incentives, cedes control, and upends entrenched hierarchies around funding decisions. To practitioners, participatory grantmaking isn’t a tactic or one-off strategy; it’s a power-shifting ethos that cuts across every aspect of the institution’s activities, policies, programs, and behaviors.

Interviews with more than 30 participatory grantmakers around the worldunderscore why this approach needs to be taken seriously. First, these funders have found that involving people with lived experience in the grantmaking process leads to better grant decisions and outcomes.

Second, the process itself increases participants’ sense of agency and leadership. For these reasons, participatory grantmakers believe funders who aren’t using participatory approaches may actually be impeding the impact they say they want to see.

Still, participatory grantmaking is a tough sell to a field that’s long struggled with power issues. And, to be sure, some funders, especially large institutions, have more entrenched bureaucracies that make it challenging to dive into participatory grantmaking head first. It’s also hard to determine who exactly their constituencies are.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle is a misperception that authentic participatory engagement requires an all-or-nothing approach. That leads to participatory grantmaking being dismissed by funders as “something we’ll never be able to do.”

Some funders who want to experiment with participatory approaches say they’re hesitant because they’re not sure what the “rules” are. One of the beautiful things about participatory work is that because it’s inherently iterative and relational, there is no “right way” to do it. So, while there is general consensus about the values that drive participatory grantmaking, there’s considerable variation in how it’s practiced.

Some participatory funds, for example, are completely peer-led in that everyone making funding decisions is a member of the population or community the fund supports and does not include any paid staff or trustees from the foundation itself. Other funds are peer-led when it comes to grantmaking, but donors and staff play a role in other parts of the process like providing grants management support. Still others involve both peers and donors in reviewing, selecting, and making grant decisions.

Read the full article about lessons from citizen journalism by Cynthia Gibson at Media Impact Funders.