Participatory Grantmaking

Foundations are exploring more ways to involve community members in helping boards make good funding decisions.

by Sarah Lutman

Foundations are increasingly involving community members — not just their boards and staff — to help decide who gets their money, according to a national Foundation Center report released in October.

A playbook for “participatory grantmaking,” the report highlights seven foundations, including the Minneapolis-based Headwaters Fund for Justice, and details how each draws upon community expertise to make grant award decisions.

Funding decisions long have been influenced by community input, but the trend shows that inclusive, community-led grantmaking practices are becoming more pervasive and creative as foundations look for ways to shift power and decision-making toward the communities they intend to serve.

This mirrors other shifts in leadership practice, management, and governance that recognize that the people closest to the work have the most expertise to solve problems and develop innovative responses.

Headwaters has practiced what it calls “community-led grantmaking” for many years, says Maria De La Cruz, associate executive director. For example, through The Giving Project, a cohort of 25 volunteers goes through six months of intensive training to understand philanthropy and discuss race, class, and power in society. The cohort also receives coaching and support to work on fundraising for social justice causes among their own friends, family, and community.

Afterward, individuals in these groups often become involved on Headwaters’ various grants committees, helping distribute the foundation’s funds to organizations across Minnesota. “This isn’t just about raising money and giving it away,” says De La Cruz, “but also about leadership development and learning for participants.” One ripple effect is that program participants are then more likely to volunteer for local nonprofits and increase their own financial support of causes they care most about.

Another example of participatory grantmaking is unfolding at the Saint Paul and Minnesota Foundations, where a series of community roundtables is providing open forums for input into and discussion of these foundations’ strategies, policies, and practices.

At an early November convening, more than 200 people heard foundation leaders report on a recent survey of grantees that asked for feedback on the grants process. Eric Jolly, president and CEO, described how grantee feedback is shaping strategic planning. Then, nonprofit attendees answered a survey about the foundations with questions such as, “What are we doing now that you don’t want us to change?” and “What do you wish we did differently or did not do?” Survey boxes were overflowing with responses.

Next year the Saint Paul and Minnesota Foundations plan to expand their community impact committee (the group that approves grants) to include additional community representatives who are closer to the work. “We want more voices at the table,” says Ann Mulholland, vice president of community impact.

Other forms of participatory grantmaking are well-established. Many grantmakers employ peer review processes that gather experts in a field to deliberate the relative merits of grant requests and recommend grantees. This is especially common in the arts and sciences.

Other funders engage youth committees or next-generation advisors to help bring fresh thinking and perspectives to the work. And even the biggest foundations, with large and knowledgeable staff, regularly engage outside observers as advisors, informants, and consultants. Often this external input comes before grant guidelines are developed, to ensure that the foundation’s programs are informed and responsive to current ideas, contexts, and conditions.

Several factors are motivating foundations to develop more inclusive, participatory decision-making practices. Data show that the majority of grantmaking in the U.S. fails to support organizations led by and serving communities of color. People of color also are underrepresented among the staff and boards of professional philanthropy. Participatory processes can be convened with diversity and inclusion at the forefront, helping foundations reach and serve new and diverse organizations.

Further, the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) recently reported that foundations are not as in touch with nonprofits’ needs as they think they are. Survey results showed that nearly all foundation leaders believe they are aware of grantees’ needs and care about their overall financial health, but that the majority of nonprofit CEOs report that foundation funders feel “little or no responsibility for strengthening their organizations.”

While foundations often focus on project grants or new initiatives, grantees say they most benefit from unrestricted support that helps them build the systems, staff, and financial resilience to operate efficiently and effectively.

This CEP report is the latest of many that document the often-yawning gap between foundations’ lofty intentions and their long-term results and impact. It may indeed help to shift the grantmaking process toward one that is community-led, community-informed, and based on lived experiences of the people doing the work.

Time will tell what impact these creative, participatory approaches to grantmaking will deliver. Until then, there are many new ways you can get involved in local philanthropy.

This article originally appeared in Twin Cities Business: http://tcbmag.com/opinion/performing-philanthropy/columns/participatory-grantmaking