Grantmaking Meets Community-Building — An Experiment in Tackling Climate Change

Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

Imagine that you’re part of an online community related to your professional interests. One day, you get a message from a moderator of this community saying that you can apply for a grant as you’re part of this community, and you can also help decide who’s going to win the prize.

Interesting, isn’t it?

That’s exactly what happened to me in mid-2020, and it ended up being a rich experience of collective decision-making and community building.

I’m part of the Climate-KIC Alumni Association. Climate-KIC (Knowledge and Innovation Community) is an initiative of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology that supports innovative solutions to help the world mitigate and adapt to climate change through partnerships, education and acceleration programs.

Climate-KIC has been investing in keeping former participants of its programs around and exploring ways to maximize collaboration opportunities among them. Their Slack channel, with more than 700 subscribers, is a useful online environment to exchange references, find business partners, and get informed about sectorial events.

In August 2020, when I got the offer to be part of the grantmaking panel, I was curious and excited. As a sustainability consultant, I had applied for grants before and wanted to know what is important to decision-makers. Besides, I’m fascinated by what communities can achieve by working together, especially in challenges related to climate change.

These are the most interesting takeaways of the experience:

  1. “Normal people” can make important decisions together

After officially joining the group of panelists, the other members and I, 32 in total, were informed that we would attend some instructional webinars, a simulation of the voting process, and the final online facilitated discussion, in which we would choose the winning proposals.

The panelists were distributed in three groups of approximately 10 people, and each group would examine twenty projects. That’s how it was possible to be both a candidate and a panelist — if you had submitted a proposal, a different group from yours would assess it.

The proposals were very diverse: a digital platform to track the origin and impact of charcoal consumption in Germany, an upcycling service for abandoned bikes in the Netherlands, and mini-forests to decrease carbon footprints and develop environmental education activities with schools in Romania, among others.

The panelists were supposed to assess projects according to criteria such as the alignment with Climate-KIC’s mission and value for money. However, unlike a traditional grantmaking process, we were advised to shift our mindset from looking for potential failures in the projects toward giving a vote of confidence to the ones that looked promising. After all, we were reviewing proposals made by our peers, and trust in the members of our own community should be one of our values.

It was interesting that none of us had joined a grantmaking panel before. We were just young researchers and entrepreneurs at the beginning of our careers, all of us normal people with some expertise in climate change. This, and the fact that we were assessing the proposals of people who were from the same community, was enough to give us the authority to do so.

And it worked!

Each of us had different relevant inputs about the proposals aligned to the grantmaking process criteria, which helped ensure that the result made sense.

2. Decision-making can be a bonding process

Then came the most interesting part of the process: consent-based decision-making. Each group of panelists met online to decide who would win the prizes. With the help of a facilitator, we went through the projects that didn’t get automatic approval, and all panelists who objected had 30 seconds to explain their reasons. If eight or more panelists had objections, the proposal would be automatically rejected. If it was not the case, in a second round, panelists with no objections could try to make the rejecters change their minds. In a third round, panelists could sustain or change their vote, defining therefore if the proposal would be approved or not.

Consent-based decision-making was enriching and fun because of the following:

  • We had a very structured and strict schedule, obliging everyone to be objective in their speeches. That avoided endless discussions that could become exhausting, and made us discuss only what really mattered about each project;

It’s worth mentioning: it was a grant, but it could have been something else — an event for the local community, writing a legislative proposal, whatever. Bringing people around a task or challenge that involves deciding things together can create space for them to discover common backgrounds and interests, which might mean the beginning of partnerships or friendships.

3. Community can be built from small participatory processes (even remotely!)

In my work, I’ve been facing increasing community-building demands from my clients. Climate-KIC’s Participatory Grantmaking panel confirmed what Peter Block, a specialist in this area, states:

  • Shift the attention from the problems of a community to its possibilities. We’re hundreds of Climate-KIC alumni spread all over the world. Many of us will never meet in person. Even so, many of us were able to collaborate and give our inputs to something important — which may be a seed for several other collaborative activities within the Climate-KIC community. And we were able to do that online, remotely.

I feel happy for the grantees, and as I look forward to seeing their projects being implemented, I like to think that somehow I’ve helped make them happen through an exciting decision-making experiment. But more than that, I’ve realized the potential of a group of people who are scattered around the world who could leap from simply being in the same (online) environment to achieving something together — and empowering other members from this same group to develop their projects aiming to tackle climate change.

To learn more about community building, take a look at Peter Block’s work.

(Thank you, Michelle Zucker, for your valuable inputs while I was writing this article!)

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