Shifting the granting balance to change outcomes

Across the breadth and depth of Australian philanthropy, an idea is stirring. It may not be readily identifiable just yet but there are signs that participatory grantmaking is building momentum, sparking interest and triggering conversations.

Indeed, what becomes apparent in any analysis of the nation’s grantmaking, is that there is plenty of evidence that participatory grantmaking is not only being thought about, but also being done – it’s just that it might not always be described that way or presented in that light.

What happens instead, is a considered response to the term “participatory grantmaking’’ from many grantmakers and grantseekers. Some are hesitant about the specifics of the definition, others have a clearer idea based on direct experience or understanding of the overseas environment, where participatory grantmaking as a term and a practice, appear to be more common. Others talk more generally about the importance of “engagement’’ between funders and recipients to maximize the impact and outcome from the granting process by listening and talking more.

Photo by Tim Mossholder

In its most accessible definition, participatory grantmaking is a way of putting funding decisions into the hands of those who are directly affected by those decisions. Once it is framed that way, it becomes easier to see where current Australian grantmaking practice sits in that context.

Such a definition also helps emphasize the innate transformative capacity of participatory grantmaking - to help shift the power dynamic in grantmaking and therefore boost equity, inclusion and diversity, while also promoting the potential for innovation and collaboration. In an increasingly familiar phrase, it is summarized as, “Nothing about us without us.’’

So where are we with participatory grantmaking?

In this special series for Philanthropy Weekly, we focus on the practice, and we explore the Australian scene to provide some compelling case studies where the principles behind participatory grantmaking have provided some new ways of tackling old problems.

Let’s begin with setting the scene for the discussion. There is widespread acknowledgement that the concept of participatory grantmaking provides the basis for a more equitable and just approach to philanthropy. As US activist, and the Founder and Chief Strategist, Decolonizing Wealth Project (US), Edgar Villanueva, recently expressed it: “Let’s all get around the table!’’ And that means, sharing knowledge as well as sharing power.

The central tenet of participatory grantmaking is the shift of power that confers more authority in the decision-making process on the funding recipient. Through this model of devolved philanthropy, the value of lived experience becomes a greater consideration in the grantmaking process. The old-style approach of funders directing the allocation of grants tilts away from them and towards to those seeking funds because they know best what they need to make an impact and drive change.

Kathy Reich, Director of BUILD at the Ford Foundation in the US, characterized it this way: “It shouldn’t be a radical idea, but the more money organisations donate, the more they like to control it and the more they like to see impact from their investment. And I can understand that – but that need for control and lack of trust really hamper the non-profit sector’s ability to have impact and to get things done and to improve people’s lives.’’

At one level, Kathy’s observation is an argument for unrestricted grantmaking – but in a broader sense, it is also an insight into some of the reasons why participatory grantmaking’s appeal is growing.

Lani Evans, head of the Vodafone New Zealand Foundation, undertook a Churchill Fellowship in 2015 that focused on participatory grantmaking. Lani, who will be a keynote speaker at next month’s Philanthropy Australia’s Thought Leadership Series on participatory grantmaking – outlined the benefit of the approach for the community and for funders.

“When done well, participation can help people understand their own leadership and agency, enable decolonization and empower individuals and communities,’’ she wrote.

“For funders who aim to enable social change, participatory practice provides a social justice framework that values lived experience and helps funders bring their own values to life.’’

Most of the discussions, research and analysis on the topic has come from the United States, where there is recognition that power imbalances can occur in more conventional funding arrangements. As US funding website GrantCraft acknowledges in one of its many resources on the topic: “Instead of external donors or expert panels making decisions about who gets funded, that responsibility is shifted to members of the target constituency itself, who themselves are experts on their own communities, bringing deep knowledge, personal experience and valuable insights to the process.’’

Photo by Tim Mossholder

It is a scenario particularly familiar to Australia’s community foundations, whose very approach is built on tapping into that local expertise to leverage the best local outcomes.

Looking at participatory grantmaking from a slightly different perspective provides another potential way to consider its usefulness in a broader philanthropic setting. In keeping with the power shift at the heart of participatory grantmaking is the implicit understanding that accountability also changes. It becomes a more collegiate practice, rather than a top-down evaluation of impact.

As Grantcraft again makes clear: “Not only does participatory grantmaking disrupt the notion of the “passive beneficiary’’ but it encourages a culture of peer-to-peer accountability for funding decisions made.’’

This peer-to-peer approach has a significant example in the Australian context when two years ago Philanthropy Australia partnered with the Paul Ramsay Foundation in a pilot peer assessment program that was supported by The Social Impact Hub. The program featured a two-day workshop that engaged 10 organisations in making assessments about which five of them would receive funding for their social impact projects.

For funders, participatory grantmaking offers new ways to increase their accountability, to become more transparent, and ultimately, more collaborative. The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy in the US sums up the funders’ challenges this way: “As a grantmaker, you cannot truly strive for and advance equity until you understand your own power and privilege in society and in relation to your grantees.’’

While there are many grantseekers and grantmakers who embrace such principles, it is often easier said than done to embark on the participatory grantmaking journey.

Some funders will find the thought of tilting the balance of their relationship toward the grantseeker too challenging: they will lose too much control and their voice will be secondary to that of activists, advocates and those with lived experience. Institutional constraints and years of convention may also impede a move to participatory grantmaking.

It is, also for smaller organisations, a potentially difficult route because it demands more of their already-stretched time and resources. Put simply, the engagement that comes from participatory grantmaking can be labour intensive for the grantseeker.

US expert on participatory grantmaking and former Director of Grantmaking at Wikimedia, Katy Love sums up the difficulties: “The discussions are really grueling, and it takes a huge amount of effort for committee members. They sacrifice so much of their own time and effort to be present for what can be a really intense process.’’

But for those who can embrace it and help deliver it, participatory grantmaking can represent a significant demonstration of trust – the trust in an organisation to deploy a grant for the best possible outcome, and the trust in a funder to not become enmeshed in the details, practicalities and nuances of grant implementation.

Perhaps now, in the wake of an international pandemic, there is an increased appetite for participatory grantmaking. Ahead of her Philanthropy Australia Thought Leadership series last year, Kathy Reich said: “I think in the wake of COVID, you are seeing funders who are being much more responsive to the needs of their grantee partners, listening to them much more closely, being much more open and less controlling about the way they give funds…’’

It is an important reminder of philanthropy’s power to innovate in response to changed circumstances and there have been few more radical global changes during the past century than the pandemic.

As GrantCraft reminds us: “Participatory grantmaking is a lever for disrupting and democratizing philanthropy.’’

Philanthropy Australia’s Thought Leadership series on Participatory Grantmaking features Lani Evans, from the Vodafone New Zealand Foundation and Michael Jarvis, from the Transparency and Accountability Initiative in Washington, and will be held on Tuesday-Thursday, August 24-26.

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