Giving Compass' Take:

• Cynthia Gibson explains the history of participatory grantmaking, offering funders insights into how it can be done well. 

• How can funders grow the tradition of participatory grantmaking? 

• Learn more about foundations shifting to participatory grantmaking

While there has been more interest in participatory approaches in philanthropy, the construct is hardly new. For decades, these approaches have been central to fields such as community organizing, deliberative democracy, public health, community psychology, participatory budgeting, and community development.

Community organizing mobilizes ordinary people—especially disenfranchised populations—to advocate for their interests in the decision-making processes that affect them. Organizing work is based on the belief that community participation leads to more informed, meaningful and long-term social change. Philanthropy has supported hundreds of locally-based organizing initiatives, as well as larger, movement-building organizations such as the Industrial Areas Foundation, PICO, Direct Action and Research Training Center, and Center for Community Change. There are also funder networks that support organizing such as Neighborhood Funders Group, Grassroots Grantmakers, and the EDGE Funders Alliance.

Deliberative democracy or governance engages local communities in public decision making based on a belief that democracy and governance work best when people directly affected by issues are actively involved in finding ways to address issues they see as priorities. Deliberative practitioners try to be as open-ended as possible, inviting people who represent a range of views and providing them with balanced information to guide their discussions and, ultimately, to make decisions. Philanthropy has supported organizations such as Public Agenda, Everyday Democracy, Deliberative Democracy Consortium, and the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation.

Community development is a process through which communities and groups engage in collective action aimed at identifying needs and assets and shaping solutions within the context of larger social institutions. The most institutionalized forms of community development are Community Development Corporations (CDCs), which are supported by both philanthropic and federal funding. Philanthropic support has also been provided to organizations such as NeighborWorks America, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and Enterprise Community Partners, all of which have networks of affiliated local nonprofit organizations that provide financing for community development efforts in urban and rural communities.

Participatory approaches are gaining in popularity because the world is changing in ways that are forcing organizations—including those in philanthropy—to think and operate differently. Those changes include an emphasis on transparency, inclusiveness, and collaboration, as well as an understanding that innovative approaches to resolving increasingly thorny issues aren’t going to come solely from the top but in partnership with people who can bring their lived experience to bear in making important decisions about their lives, communities, and futures.

While philanthropy has been behind the curve when it comes to fully embracing a more systematic approach to participation, it’s slowly coming around with more and more funders expressing interest in how they can involve outsiders in various aspects of the grantmaking process. That doesn’t mean most funders are ready to fully fly the participatory flag. There are major hurdles to overcome if the field is to embrace participatory approaches as more than a tactic or “one-off,” but rather, an ethos that is marbled through everything the institution does and how it operates. That’s not easy for a field that has long been entranced by “the new,” as well as a tendency to assume that what’s new has never been done before because philanthropy hadn’t discovered it.

But there are other reasons this field has moved more slowly than others, besides an oft-mentioned desire to hold on to power and control. Legacy foundations, for example, tend to have more formalized policies and/or structures that don’t lend themselves (at least initially) to participatory approaches. Also, their grantmaking is often more focused on large organizations, which leaves them a step removed from the communities they serve and, thus, with seemingly fewer opportunities to engage in participatory processes.

Read the full article about participatory grantmaking by Cynthia Gibson at HistPhil.