“Nothing about us without us,” is commonly used by community activists when speaking about the changes they want to see in their communities. The idea is simple: those most affected by social problems—the intended beneficiaries of any program—should fully and meaningfully participate in decisions about programs, policies, and strategies that may directly impact their communities. Philanthropy is not something done “to people”; ideally, it is something done “with other people” to help them or to improve the world.

Donors who want to have a meaningful impact in communities—especially those who want to help the most marginalized and vulnerable—have very strong reasons to explore how their giving strategies can adhere to a deeply held community-based sentiment. This sentiment translates into a compelling and straightforward principle at the heart of democracy itself: any person significantly affected by a decision deserves to have a voice in the making of that decision. Democratic theorists call this the “all-affected principle.”

How can I apply a more democratic approach to my philanthropy, by which the communities most proximate to the needs can participate in the decision-making process?

  1. You can restructure your philanthropy, so those most proximate to the problems become part of your governance structure. Whether you have a foundation, a donor-advised fund, or a limited liability corporation, you can design the governance to include members of the communities you want to support. Instead of centering your giving around your decisions, you can focus on the needs of the people, empowering them to decide how to deploy your philanthropic resources. Otherwise, if it is difficult to restructure the governance of your philanthropic organization, you can also consider setting up an advisory body with decision-making rights.
  2. You can fund community-led philanthropic funds that are more proximate to the communities you are looking to support. By letting others decide how to distribute your funding, you are, in effect, democratizing your philanthropy. Citizens and community leaders determine the values guiding your philanthropic dollars: what to fund, how much, and to what end. In this approach, you would share your power and authority with a broader decision-making body representing a diverse group of communities and organizations. Therefore, you can identify community-led funds or organizations with a participatory process at the local level to determine how to distribute resources within the community.

Read the full article about democratizing your philanthropy by Mohit Mookim, Rob Reich, Nadia Roumani and Ayushi Vig at the National Center for Family Philanthropy.