We’re sharing a deep dive discussion on the topic of participatory grantmaking that was part of this past spring’s 2021 Collective Impact Action Summit. In this deep dive, we explore what is participatory grantmaking, how is it different from more traditional approaches to philanthropy, and how does this approach shift decision-making power to communities, putting them in charge of funding the solutions they want to see.
Participating in this discussion is Bonnie Chiu of The Social Investment Consultancy, Melanie Kawano-Chiu of the Disability Rights Advocacy Fund, Hannah Paterson of The National Lottery Community Fund, and Meg Massey of Sanspeur, who is also co-author of the book Letting Go: How Philanthropists and Impact Investors Can Do More Good By Giving Up Control.
Video and transcript below. For a podcast of this talk, please visit our resource library or find our Collective Impact Forum podcast on your preferred podcast platform.
Sheri Brady: It is my pleasure to turn it over to the moderator for the first panel that we have on participatory grantmaking. That is Hannah Paterson. She’s senior portfolio manager at the National Lottery Community Fund, which is responsible for distributing funds raised by the National Lottery for charitable work in the United Kingdom. Hannah?
Hannah Paterson: Hello everybody. I don’t know if you can see me. I’m Hannah and I’m not actually moderating today, Bonnie’s leading the charge for us. She’s going to take it away.
Bonnie Chiu: Sorry for the confusion. Hi everyone. My name’s Bonnie and I’ll be moderating. Hannah is on the panel as one of the other panelists and we also have Melanie and if you can spotlight Melanie that would be great.
Welcome everyone. It was really great to have that introduction from the team around centering equity, and participatory grantmaking is definitely one of the many ways that you can center equity in grantmaking. I’m Bonnie Chiu. I run The Social Investment Consultancy and have been supporting many foundations around centering equity in grantmaking and also implementing participatory grantmaking.
I’m really moderating and teasing out the expertise from my two panelists today. I’ll also be drawing in Meg Massey later on who just published a book today about participatory grantmaking and how funders can be letting go. So Meg, if you want to paste that link of your book, I’m sure people would love to see it. We’ll also be hearing from Meg a little bit later on around her experience and what she’s heard from many funders and experts that she’s interviewed.
Just to frame the session a little bit, participatory grantmaking—you can define it however you want. It is an evolving field so the definition is also evolving but just to frame the discussion for today, a definition that we’ll be providing is from GrantCraft, which has published a really good manual on participatory grantmaking. It is essentially to cede decision-making power about funding including the strategy and criteria behind those decisions to the very communities that funders aim to serve. It is really about the entire cycle not just at the very last moment when you have all the grants shortlisted and you just get a community to basically reference that. It is about the very beginning, how you set up the grant, what you look for, what you define as success.
The other terms like community-led philanthropy and it also intersects with other movements whether that’s feminist philanthropy and antiracist philanthropy. This is really all around equity and how we shift power back the affected communities.
What we’re going to talk about today, we’ll talk about the principles of participatory grantmaking, we’ll learn about how participatory funds are designed. We want to make this interactive so please do put any questions you have in the chat and I know Sheri will help me glance through the questions and I’ll try my best as the moderator as well but of course, if you also have your experience that you want to share, please do put it in the chat and we can see if we have time for some of you to also share your experience in the next 55 minutes.
To introduce my panelists more formally, Hannah is already, Sheri explained a little bit her background. She’s also a Churchill Fellow where she’s done quite a lot of research in participatory grantmaking and Melanie is currently the learning and evaluation manager at the Disability Rights Fund, which is very much a pioneer in participatory grantmaking and Melanie leads monitoring and evaluation and learning across 20 countries. I’ll kick off now our panel discussion.
Hannah, what attracted you to participatory grantmaking at the first place and tell us more about that fellowship which sounds really interesting that you got to travel all across the world to explore participatory grantmaking.
Hannah Paterson: Yes. I kind of fell into funding. It was not a planned career move. I started off working in disability rights in the UK particularly looking at how disabled students can improve and better their education in further and higher education, so universities and colleges in the UK. I’m from that kind of background and being a disabled person really focused on the mantra of the disabled people’s movement, which is “nothing about us without us” and I’ve brought that kind of lens or ways of thinking into grantmaking so when I arrived in grantmaking it was like, “Oh, this is an interesting space and this is an interesting way of doing things.” It’s quite top down. There’s a kind of a limited understanding of communities and how they are impacted by funding.
I started to explore and develop a funding program for the National Lottery Community Fund looking particularly at funding leaders with lived experience so people with firsthand experience with social issues who then use that to create change for others. As I started to design this program I thought well, I really shouldn’t be the one that’s deciding what should get funding or how it should get funded and started to explore different approaches to co-design and collaboration and participation in the development of strategies and funding programs and then decision making, which kind of led me on this merry little adventure into participatory grantmaking.
I spent a lot of time kind of trying to understand what this thing is. It’s very difficult to say and spell so I’ve had a great time writing about it for the last few years. It was a really interesting way of uncovering a load of practice that kind of in the past has sat very much on the sidelines of philanthropy and the way that different organizations do it and over the past five years has really kind of galvanized and developed a lot of traction.
I ended up being very, very lucky in doing the Churchill Fellowship. I spent two weeks in South Africa with the Other Foundation who are an incredible funder supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people in the 13 southern African countries learning about their work and their model, which was absolutely incredible. Then I spent several weeks kind of—I don’t want to say flitting because that sounds too—but moving about quite quickly across the U.S. Spent some time at Disability Rights Fund. I spent time in San Francisco, New York, Washington, and Boston meeting about 40 different participatory grantmakers across the U.S. understanding what their models are, what they’re doing, how they’re doing it with the hope to bring back some of this learning to the UK and impact the sector here. That’s my little weird journey through participatory grantmaking.
Bonnie Chiu: Thank you so much, Hannah. And now you are also coordinating this movement of people trying to do this. You have 80 or so people in the Google Group now. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Hannah Paterson: I came back from my Churchill Fellowship and one of the outcomes of that fellowship is I have to produce some form of report, which is great. While I’m not a report reader or necessarily a report writer but I pulled together information about what I was doing and I can share that in the chat. I kind of thought actually if this is about changing the way the philanthropy works or introducing a different approach to different people then a static report that is nice that some people might read that sits on the internet probably isn’t going to be the method in which the world changes and also like this space is messy and confusing and exciting and sometimes it is difficult and it’s really, really nice to have other people who are working in this space to talk to.
So March last year, we started with 12 people on the webinar basically being like, “Oh, you’re doing participatory? I’m doing participatory. Should we make friends? Let’s do some participatory grantmaking together.” We are now up to 320 members and we meet monthly with an average of about 80 people at those meetings. You are more than welcome to join us. We love more people getting involved and we have an active Slack group and an email list. We are in the process of developing a website so it’s a lovely kind of collection of people coming together, sharing challenges, successes, picking each other’s brains, sharing information, and advice, guidance. It’s really, really nice. If you’re looking at this space do shout and we can add you in.
Bonnie Chiu: That’s fantastic. Thank you so much, Hannah. I’m sure you’ll get lots of new joiners from this session today. Turning to you, Melanie, can you tell us a bit more about the Disability Rights Fund from how the organization’s evolved around the thinking and practice of participatory grantmaking?
Melanie Kawano-Chiu: Sure Bonnie. Happy to do that and thank you again for the opportunity to share about how the whole organization thinks about participation. I’m going to share a little bit about the UN Convention on The Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Disability Rights Fund because it has helped and it is a fundamental part of the work that we do as participatory grantmaking has been a part of the Disability Rights Fund from the very beginning. Because the fund was structured to help support the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This is a UN convention that was adopted in December of 2006 by the UN General Assembly and by the time it was ready to be open for signatories about four months later, there were 82 signatories on the convention. This is the highest number in the history of the UN conventions that had signed on opening day. It’s been one of the fastest ratified treaties. So there’s something particularly universal about disability rights.
I think once a conversation has started around disability rights that people don’t necessarily see it as a bipartisan issue and yet persons with disabilities are often not making decisions about their own living spaces, about their own rights, and so Bonnie had mentioned this basic principle, this well known that’s become actually a rather well-known phrase I think in many circles that started with the disability movement in southern Africa several decades ago and that’s “nothing about us without us.”
Diana Samarasan, who is our founder director, is also on the call. I just wanted to give her a shout out and joining us today. Diana worked with activists and funders to develop the participatory grantmaking model at DRF. As Hannah’s report points out, we have a representative model of participatory grantmaking, which means that persons who are not necessarily from the target communities that we’re funding are making decisions on the grants.
The Disability Rights Fund was launched in January of 2008 and one of the first main activities was the meeting of what we had at the time. It was called a Global Advisory Panel and 75% of those panelists were activists of diverse disabilities, geographic, gender, and representation and some bridge-builders from other human rights movements. Along with the steering committee that acted as the Disability Rights Fund decision-making body, that operated to help us make decisions on grants and the strategy until DRF got its own 501(c)(3), 504 status, which is U.S. Tax Code for being able to provide grant funding for a variety of activities.
The steering committee eventually became the body that we call now our grantmaking committee. That has a majority of persons with disabilities as well as institutional donor representatives. Some of these donor representatives are there providing inputs on how we develop strategies at the country level and the global level but they don’t all actually have voting power but all of the disability activists do.
In the first year of the fund, going back to the history and at that first meeting at the Global Advisory Panel, activists gave us content and gave Diana content on what would eventually evolve into our grantmaking guidelines, our requests for proposals, and how we do outreach. There was an intentional strategy to put donors and activists together in those bodies from the very beginning. This is not actually a typical model for donors and activists to share decision-making power. We can talk about that a little bit more later if folks are interested and what that looks like.
Because there was very little interaction between the donor community and the disability community many of whom were being brought together for the first time as the UN convention was being written. There’s sometimes an inherent structure when you bring donors and activists together. That can create an imbalance of power so it’s been really critical for the Disability Rights Fund staff and the board and each member of the grantmaking committee to address those power dynamics both in the meetings and then how we structure and input and how the fund itself is structured.
Just to fast forward a little bit to 2008 when a decision was made to shift even more decision-making power to the grantmaking committee from the board. The grantmaking committee are the ones that are reviewing our grant recommendations, the grantmaking guidelines, country-level strategies, and so shifting that final decision-making power which again, is one point in the process of participatory grantmaking to the grantmaking committee away from the board was another way to restructure and think about how these power dynamics were playing out.
In the midst of that shift, we also increased the number of activists on the grantmaking committee and on the board. So participation though, as you both have pointed out, is baked into not just the board and the grantmaking committee but also in the intentionality of hiring and what our hiring processes look like. So persons with disabilities are on our staff and especially program officers who are the main liaisons with the disabilities communities on the ground that are receiving grants.
As the Disability Rights Fund grew, DRF, as we call it for short, moved away from having international program officers who were responsible for whole regions of grantmaking to hiring disability activists from the national target movements themselves. We’ve heard a good deal of feedback from our grantees on how critical it is that the program officers are persons with disabilities and we’re doing some early research now as well looking at does it matter to grantees if board members and grantmaking committee members are also persons with disabilities. Grantees are telling us it does matter that they feel seen, that they feel heard, they feel that their lived experiences are going to represented even more so.
Just briefly on the measurement side of things and then I’ll wrap up. There’s been much more investment in recent years and I think even this panel and this conversation is testament to that in the broader philanthropic community really trying to dig in and understand and document the benefits and challenges of participatory grantmaking and the different models that exist and that are open to people and available. I’d say part of this learning is at least at the Disability Rights Fund was an investment even in a learning position. So before we hired other staff the learning role was brought on early on so I’ve been around for about four years and right before actually my daughter was diagnosed with neurodiversity herself on a side note. We currently have a grant from the Ford Foundation along with eight other coalitions of researchers and participatory grantmakers who are again examining the benefits and the challenges and Hannah I just need to point out is on our research board and helping to provide us with direction on how do we actually look at our representative model and answer the question of whether or not and the participatory grantmaking structure actually helps to influence or prevent effectiveness and efficiency.
The Disability Rights Fund has contributed to almost 250 national and local legislation, policies, and programs that have been advocated for passage to be disability inclusive by disability activists themselves and we think that that’s a fantastic achievement. I’m going to stop there and happy to answer more technical questions later as well.
Bonnie Chiu: Thanks so much, Melanie. There’s a question for you which we can turn to a bit later about just the technicality of what you just described. I certainly think when you spoke about not just representation, presence of disability but also your move from international program officers to national program officers. There’s so many dimensions.
If we are being truly participatory that we need to think about and talk about intersectionality and just have to think about all these different dimensions of oppression and structural oppression and how we can truly be representative and participatory. It’s not that you do one thing and that’s fine. It’s really a continuous journey. Thank you for sharing that attribution.
On that impact mention and note that you ended on, I just want to turn to this idea or this trend I’m seeing. Everyone, once something is trendy, they start saying or we’re participatory or we’re equitable, so do you actually see any risk of “participatory grantmaking-washing” and if you could actually tell us, how do you truly hold funders to account to what they say they do actually once it starts? Hannah, do you want to start?
Hannah Paterson: I’ve been mulling this over quite a lot because I think as the practices starts to develop and people get really involved in participant grantmaking, I think there is a real concern that lots of people in the space might be like, “Yeah, we’re doing participatory grantmaking,” pat themselves on the back and kind of feel better about inequity that lives within our kind of society and daily lives.
I think a lot of it is always returning back to the principles of participatory grantmaking and what is meaningful participation, what is passing power and shifting that to communities. How do you provide agency to decide what does that look like? How can people take that, and it has been playing on my mind about how do we start to define this or provide parameters in which people are working too so that people aren’t just saying that they’re doing stuff when actually it is very extractive or quite tokenistic. I don’t think we quite understand that, and I think we’re kind of definitely grappling with it quite a lot.
I think part of it is around the transparency that funders have around where do decisions sit and what does that look like. Particularly I think there’s a difference between organizations like Disability Rights Fund or Red Umbrella or many of the participatory grantmaking organizations who are set up as participatory grantmakers, that their governance, the way that they work is much more embedded in its value comparatively to more traditional funders who are then trying to pivot their work, and what does that mean, and recognizing that that’s quite a difficult journey for a lot of funders.
I work in a very traditional organization. It’s quite different because it’s public money so the money that I distribute as part of my organization is from the place at the National Lottery in the UK so we’re governed by government. Our governance structures are set out in law and kind of guidance from government, and we’re accountable to the public purse. There’s rules and regulations that are much more tricky to navigate or change than maybe other philanthropic organizations will have to take to be better at their participatory grantmaking. I think recognizing it as a journey of change and like where can you embed participation in that process helps us all to move along the journey but how do we stop people using that as an excuse or kind of like, “We’ve done it. We’re at this point,” and how do we continuously reflect on how do we do this better. How do we continuously see yourselves? How do we continuously engage and more than that, distribute power to communities to create the change that they want to see? I’m thinking about it. It’s preying on my mind.
Bonnie Chiu: Thank you, Hannah. I’m sure your community of practice of close to 400 strong now will emerge something that can be shared with the field. Melanie, just on the point around impact measurement and more investment into evaluation and learning, how do you ensure that at DRF you are holding yourself to account to those principles you set out?
Melanie Kawano-Chiu: I think the challenge that any measurement process is how to connect an action with ripple effects, and in a social setting it can be expensive or even harmful if you try to isolate one action and try to measure that and hold everything else in control. That’s not different from measuring the impact of participatory grantmaking but I think what one can do is to ensure that you’re including the most marginalized persons in your research group, in your evaluation sample, and making sure that you are asking the communities that are benefiting from your engagement whether or not they actually think they are being heard, and doing that in a way that makes them feel safe to be able to provide real responses. So do you control for response bias? Do you allow for anonymous feedback, and how often do you do that?
So at the Disability Rights Fund, one of my colleagues leads an annual grantee survey that we do and have been doing for more than 10 years asking how we’re doing, what pieces can we change, and this is the first time that we’ve also asked them for their opinion about whether or not they think the most marginalized groups in the disability movement in their target country have been more engaged. We’ve found that out through our evaluations. Every social movement has hierarchy and structures, and that’s just something that as you’re engaging in participatory grantmaking, if you’re going to shift the power, if you’re going to let something go, you have to actually acknowledge there is a power imbalance first, and be real and open about that. You can’t get around that sometimes uncomfortable conversation.
We decided this past year that we needed to ask grantees how they thought they were being included even in the margins of the disability movement, and it’s been some interesting data that we’ve been finding over time. We also look at asking our grantees, for example, and our donors some harder questions. Can we have our grantees be the ones to decide in reflecting more participatory evaluation approaches, they will decide the evaluation principles. We do feedback loops where we translate—most recently our evaluations were translated into lessons learned for our grantees. So evaluations and learning tends to be from the commissioner of the evaluation, and it doesn’t necessarily answer how our grantees can benefit from some of these lessons learned so we took our 80-page evaluation reports, whittled that down into four pages, and then also made that easy to read as well. An easy-to-read document is a document that’s written specifically for a person who may have an intellectual disability, and allows a more distilled version of concepts along with pictures to help facilitate understanding.
Bonnie Chiu: Thank you so much. You spoke about different concrete things that we can do to actually measure how we are doing as funders and whether we’re holding ourselves to account to those principles. Sheri, I think you pulled up a few questions from the chat. Do you want to pose them?
Sheri Brady: Sure. Here’s one. Someone in the audience has asked they have found that a lot of times activists get sort of critical about who’s in the room, and they find that when they’re embedded in the decision-making process, they have less time to continue sort of doing the work and engaging people on the ground, and they get more distant from the community so how do you sort of compensate for that on some level in your work if you continually have them as a part of the process? That’s great. Are they—how do you sort of help with that piece of it?
Melanie Kawano-Chiu: Is that a question—
Sheri Brady: I think it’s either sort of—I think it’s one of the things that folks, as you think about participatory grantmaking, how do you make sure that you sort of shake up who the activists are in the room and you make sure that you’re not having them spend all their time sort of making decisions about grantmaking versus doing their work because that can be just as confusing and disturbing and disruptive as other kinds of work.
Hannah Paterson: And then you turn into foundation staff.
Sheri Brady: Exactly, and then you turn into Foundation Staff.
Hannah Paterson: And the whole thing turns around again.
Diana had mentioned at the top that Disability Rights Fund have terms of service for their decision makers but there are lots of different models of participatory grantmaking. One of the models that we use for our Leaders with Lived Experience Program we’ve chosen because we want to strengthen an entire sector. The way that we do it is that we have—it’s a continuous program so there are numerous rounds. After the first round of funding, we put funding into 20 organizations between 20,000 and 50,000 pounds’ worth of funding over a year, and all of those organizations, a total of 20 grant holders were invited to be the decision makers for the cohort that followed them, and we decided to make that decision because we wanted not only to put money into the sector but also to help those organizations understand who else is out there, who else is working in the space, what are they learning from the process, how are they improving their grants as they move forward, how does that then improve their sustainability and allow them to access more funding as we move forward.
So the process in itself of participatory grantmaking is just as important as the end result of where the funding goes, and how do you start to think about actually what capacity building comes out of this, what networks. What’s the magic that happens when you bring people from different spaces together to talk and kind of deliberate on those?
There’s been a couple of questions that kind of all center around this idea of kind of like activists in the room, and like, what does that mean, conflicts of interest. Conflict is something that comes up all of the time, and I think is a fascinating conversation because what does that actually mean? I think you often put communities together in participatory grantmaking where they know the sector but that’s kind of the benefit of it because they know the sector. They can work how actually- I can’t work out when I end up with a grant on my desk. “We work really, really well with the Traveller community.” I have no idea whether that’s true or not. I can take it at face value but if you bring a community together and have that discussion, they can pick through what actually is reality and what’s not, and what we find which I find fascinating, and I don’t know if you guys find this in other spaces, is that through a participatory grantmaking process, the decision making is actually much more rigorous. People are—they will pick apart an application. They will understand the context. They will understand when something is fudged a little bit or using some nice language that sounds nice on paper but actually doesn’t result in kind of like actually being connected to communities.
There are also some really interesting models of participatory grantmaking called Closed Collective where you’ll bring together all of the applicants to collectively make a decision about who should access funding, and how do they kind of see what’s there and with the ease of my math brain, if you’ve got 10 organizations all applying for funding and 100,000 on the table, those 10 could all leave with 10,000 pounds and that would be nice but through the conversations they might decide, “Well, actually my project is probably not as strong as other people here. I’m going to take myself out of the process,” or, “I’ve said I want 10,000 pounds but actually I could probably deliver for eight and I want to put two back in,” or, “We’re doing the same project. Let’s combine and reduce our costs,” or, “You’ve put an application in for a safeguarding policy and rewriting of that. We can help you do that for free.” All of this stuff happens through the conversations. The money almost just acts as bringing people together to collectively decide what is important to communities, what creates change, how do we do that collectively, how do we think systemically about what this funding can do and where it can go.
There’s a lovely quote from Jamie Baine at the University of Minnesota, Minnesota University. I don’t know which way round that goes, and somebody from there will probably be offended by it if I said the wrong thing but that university, who says the quote, “Participatory grantmaking is like ballet. You can describe it as much as you want but you never really experience it until you see it in practice.” I think a lot of this stuff comes up and you go, “What about this? What about this?” But actually when you see it and realize that it’s not just communities going, “I want to fund all my friends,” and they’re actually saying, “This is really important because I know what this means. I know what this grant means to my community, the impact that it can have.” It’s not just a number on a page. No, I’m still very invested in the fact that 20,000 pounds is a really big grant whereas I think as funders you get to the point where you’re like, “20,000 pounds here, 20,000 pounds there, that’s fine,” and it really builds that kind of like, the impact of what that money can do, and embed that into the conversation which I think is really exciting and really creates some really, really good decisions.
Bonnie Chiu: I’ve actually experienced it. I’ve been part of kind of participatory budgeting process and when it’s all online and you see what other people’s proposals are, and while I think all of us would have our own ego when we put up our project we wanted to get funded as part of this group but once I looked at other people’s projects, I think actually their projects are better. I want to use my budget to fund them, and it’s no longer about me, it’s about us as a collection. That’s also part of the beauty of participatory grantmaking, that your agency is not just me actually having this idea but actually us going through this process together and us having this vision all together.
It does take some reimagining of grantmaking because grantmaking has been for so long this competitive process, this funnel that we have to distill down to the last five or 10 but actually it’s just a different way of thinking. I just wanted to share that, Hannah, when you were sharing that experience, and almost also flipping some of the ideas, concepts we take for granted in grantmaking like conflicts of interest. I mean why don’t we flip that on its head?
Hannah Paterson: It’s fascinating. We did our latest round of our Leaders with Lived Experience Program, and having community decision makers. The level of chat and discussion is like next level stuff that you’ve never really touched on because you always just focus on kind of like what’s the governance issue, what’s the budget whereas actually the conversation centers on what is important and what are the values, what is this, and actually through that discussion, what the collective decided so there was a group of about 13 decision makers. We had disabled lived-experience leaders who were there and engaging and continuously bringing up this application in youth work or LGBT rights or race that doesn’t accommodate access needs, it’s not accessible, it’s not accessible, it’s a continuous critique of the applications that were coming through, and the group decided that actually instead of spending the entire budget by adding an extra three projects in, what they would do is they would take that last 5% of the budget and give every grant an uplift so every grant added an extra 6,000 pounds to the grants that we gave them in order for them to improve their access around how they would engage their beneficiaries, what their work would look like, how do they make sure that disabled people were included in whatever work they were doing in whatever space, and it was only through those kind of collective deliberations and continuous challenge from those decision makers that that decision or that thought would have come through that wouldn’t have come from us as funders because it just wouldn’t be on our radar. We wouldn’t think about that. They’re bringing in those different life experiences, different opinions, different geographies, different backgrounds. It’s an incredible space for the magic to happen. That’s so cheesy but I’m going to stick with them.
Melanie Kawano-Chiu: I don’t think it’s cheesy, Hannah. If I could just say that. We all have processes in place where if you’re in a more traditional funding model, that you may not realize addresses a lot of these basic questions on how things get done. Those processes are developed over time probably based on a set of principles and a set of values that you have. So participatory is the same. You’re going to develop processes. There’s going to be progressive realization. You’re going to see the benefits and I think to Hannah’s point, the amazing amount of rigor that does need to go into decision-making processes and vetting, especially when I think participatory grantmaking as a model is still considered risky, and if you’re giving to underserved communities who then themselves have been marginalized from many things, and then they become risky groups to fund as well. So you do put a lot of rigor in place, and it’s probably not that different from mechanisms that already are in place in traditional funding but it hasn’t been thought through in the same way. It’s great to be asking these questions. It’s part of being more participatory, thinking about where the power lays, and then shifting that away is asking these questions.
Bonnie Chiu: Great, thank you. One more question coming in from the chat is around the practicality so if I can summarize, there are three questions that speak to similar things. What are the practical steps for starting a participatory grantmaking process? Do you compensate them for their time, and how long does it take to actually kind of manage or facilitate this type of a process so you have practical steps but with a focus on compensation and the time it takes?
Hannah Paterson: I always advocate paying people for their time and wisdom because that’s a good thing to do particularly if you’re a funder with a large operational budget, share that wealth. Otherwise it’s a bit extractive, and there’s a way, a different way to do it, and actually this conversation comes up over and over again. I get asked—I had like a month where I got asked by about 30 different people, “How do you pay people?” I think that context is different depending on how you’re working and where you’re working so in the UK a lot of that conversation is actually about if you’re working with decision makers who are unemployed or accessing something through kind of government benefits, paying them can knock them off those benefits, how to be really, really careful that paying somebody 100 quid to do a decision making doesn’t end up in their rent not being paid which is slightly more complex than possibly the U.S. system where those benefits might not necessarily exist or act in a different way.
Sometimes it acts as a bit of a red herring, and is a bit like not quite sure about this, how do we do it but paying people, that’s good. The time thing is really interesting and a really difficult question to answer because it depends on the process that you design, the way you bring people in, and what you’re asking them to do. If you have the opportunity to design that process, you can design to kind of the timeframe that you want.
I’ve seen some participatory grantmaking through our Leaders with Lived Experience Program, our decision making was six weeks. I mean it nearly killed some of our staff but it was quick. It was a speedy response from applications, closing, to money going out the door. Others it’s a two-, three-year process of really building that relationship with communities, getting to know what they need, what is important to them, and design so it’s a complete array.
When I launched my Churchill report I did a load of webinars, and one of those was particularly on the operationalizing of participatory grantmaking, and I can put the link in the chat for anybody that’s interested. If you have questions about the logistics of participatory grantmaking, as Diana says, the community of practice is a really lovely place to start. Our next meeting is coming up on the first Thursday and first Friday of May. We have two meetings but they run the same agenda just in different time zones and my time math is awful so the Thursday is 5 p.m. until 6:30 p.m. in the UK time. I’m not sure what it is wherever you are, and the Friday session is 8 a.m. until 9:30 a.m. UK time so you can pick which one suits your time zone or diary. This next session coming up is on peer support so we’ll be in small breakout rooms around issues, topics, things that you want to discuss, things that you’re stuck on, things that you want to celebrate so do feel free to let me know and we can add you in to all of that because it’s lovely.
Bonnie Chiu: Great. Thank you so much. Melanie, any practical tips that you want to share as well?
Melanie Kawano-Chiu: I agree. People need to be compensated for their work, not just for their time but for their travel as well. For the Disability Rights Fund that also includes then providing payments for people’s sign language interpreters or their tactile interpreters or their personal assistants that they may need as well, and then making sure that those people that are supporting them are not overworked. So if they need two sign language interpreters for a two-hour meeting, then you need to get two sign language interpreters, and to pay those costs. For some participatory grantmakers they provide travel funds even if you’re coming from a different part of the city, and so all of those costs should be compensated, be thought through and be budgeted for. I’ll stop there.
I think there has been some great work with Mama Cash making this transition. Katy Love is particularly versed in this work, and then more folks will become familiar with participatory grantmaking the more her name and her leadership will pop up, and her work around that. I think she worked with Mama Cash to develop that. And then I would say the last thing on the practicality is to reemphasize this lens on intersectionality, and that recognizing that marginalization and disenfranchisement and systemic ways of that happening becomes further pushed, the different sort of shared identities that people have, and multiple identities that they have. So it’s critical to think about how someone’s gender and disability status might overlap and how you represent that in your decision making.
Bonnie Chiu: Thanks so much, Melanie. I’m sure more questions will come in in the last 15 minutes or so that we have but I want to draw in Meg because, Meg, you just published your book today. Can you tell us more about your book and if you can highlight your top learnings from funders who have really taken that shift to letting to and shifting power?
Meg Massey: Yes, absolutely. Thank you so much, Bonnie, and thank you to everyone for being part of this conversation. The book is called Letting Go: How Philanthropists and Impact Investors Can Do More Good by Giving Up Control. I coauthored it with Ben Wrobel who works at Village Capital which is a nonprofit that does peer-selected investment. We wrote the book about both philanthropy and impact investing because we wanted to look at the different decision points that funders make when they’re deciding how to support social causes.
On the participatory grantmaking side, the three decision points that we identified where community could be brought into the process were number one at the theory of change so as you’re thinking big picture about what issues your foundation wants to address, what problems you want to solve with a particular grantmaking program, how can you make communities a part of that.
The second point is on building a pipeline so that—and at that point that’s looking at how you source grantee applications, and thinking more expansively about that, not going back to the same, often more well-funded, larger, more resourced organizations just because they can maybe put together the best application but really thinking about who’s doing the work.
The third is on vetting and voting which is where community members are helping to make those funding decisions. Those are the three points where we identify, and I would say that some of the—I think the biggest thing that we learned and it’s already been said in this discussion is that the process really is the point. Participatory grantmaking is not a thing you do once and then never stop doing it. There is no end to it. You are constantly iterating. You’re trying to bring voices in the room that haven’t been there before. You’re looking at who isn’t at the table, and a participatory process that works really well for one grantmaking program may not work well two or three years down the line so you make changes or it may work great for one program but the exact same way won’t work for another so there’s just so much iteration and conversation, and what comes out of that conversation is trust.
I think that’s the biggest message that we want to convey with this book, just the importance of trust, and that trust comes from building relationships with people, holding yourselves accountable, holding your grantees accountable but really walking the walk.
I’ll end with one story and then hand it back off to you, Bonnie, but there’s the Brooklyn Community Foundation, they instituted a participatory grantmaking process in one of their programs, and with the way that they’re structured, their community members who voted on who received funding and then their board still had final signoff. The first couple of years they considered themselves a rubber stamp, and then in I believe 2017 one of the recommended grantees was an organization that was fighting for more affordable housing in a real estate development that a lot of residents were concerned about. It turned out that the real estate developer was a funder, had given money to Brooklyn Community Foundation, had close relationships with people on the board, and it was a moment where everyone held their breath, and then the board said, no, we’re still signing off on this, and that seemed to be a real—that to me is a really good illustration of how to make this more than just words. They had an opportunity to do something that was in their financial interest, and they chose to commit to what they told their community.
So for all the leaders on this call who are trying to think of ways to implement this, I would think through, OK, what do my grantees need from me? How do I build that trust, and how do I demonstrate it in ways that they’ll see? I’ll stop there but thank you.
Bonnie Chiu: Great, thanks so much, Meg, for that great example. I’m sure many of us will be looking forward to reading your book as well and learning from all of those funders you have been able to interview. I think your experience, what you talked about involving people really from the beginning, involving them in the strategy, that also speaks to one of the questions I didn’t get to earlier, whether you invite participants to prioritize needs prior to inviting proposals versus involving after proposals have been created. I think what I’m hearing is that it should be really from the very, very beginning before we design any criteria so that will be true participatory grantmaking. There’s also another question that has come which is going back again a little bit into the practical side whether—perhaps Hannah, if you can have a go first, has truly participatory grantmaking process meant you have had to extend timelines or do fewer initiatives? I think actually underpinning that question does speak to some assumptions people still have around participatory grantmaking that it might mean that we’re giving up something but do you want to speak to that, Hannah?
Hannah Paterson: I find this stuff really fascinating because I often get asked like does it take longer or is it a shorter process to traditional grantmaking on the assumption that somebody’s measured how long it takes traditional grantmaking. It’s a really difficult question to answer because some organizations and funders will spend 50 hours on one grant application, looking at that, and a participatory grantmaking process might be much shorter or less intensive. Others might look at an application and decide within 20 minutes whether it’s a yes or no, and that’s where a participatory grantmaking approach will take longer.
I think there have been points in the work that we’ve done where we’ve extended timelines and deadlines based on communities and how they’re involved in the process. One of the other funding programs that we have at the National Lottery Community Fund is the Phoenix Fund which has been an incredible piece of work not led by me in any way, shape or form, but Shane Ryan who’s now left the organization, Kieran Lewis, then on top of that had a huge number of incredible Black-led organizations in the U.K., UBELE, Yvonne Field, Baljeet Sandhu- loads of organizations that have come together and basically told us what they want from the funding.
It’s been a very, very different way to the way that we usually work, and it’s taken a bit longer. It’s been about kind of like decision making but ultimately our organization, because of where the money comes from, we can’t necessarily sit on budgets. Our budgets have to come in at the end of the financial year either 5% below or above where we were budgeted. There’s no turnover. There’s no reinvestment into an endowment so there are timelines that we have to keep to, and that’s a bit of a balancing act. A lot of that is around how do you have that, as Meg suggested, that trust within the process to be kind of ready, open, and honest with individuals about like this is where we can wiggle, this is where we can’t wiggle, this is how we can do this, this is where we can extend and reduce and this is what this means, and how do our staff then step up and maybe reduce sometimes in different places. Where do we flex and move and develop around communities.
Bonnie Chiu: I think one thing about participatory grantmaking also is your panelists, the people making the grants who have much more urgency than actually the people currently making grants now. So they want the money to get out of the door as soon as possible, and Diana has kindly shared also an example of rapid participatory grantmaking that was implemented during COVID so thank you, Diana, for that example. Melanie, do you have anything else to add? Otherwise we’ll wrap up. The break is coming up soon.
Melanie Kawano-Chiu: Thanks. I wanted to echo Meg’s point about bringing persons in from the communities to develop a theory of change so I’m just going to paste a screenshot of what we call our Pathway to Change. It’s our theory of change at the Disability Rights Fund that was developed by activists that we found to be incredibly effective because activists have known for decades where the pressure points are that need to be pushed, and they know what’s effective and where their voices need to be heard and where they’ve been excluded. There’s no one else that’s going to have that better experience and expertise to provide for us.
I also wanted to echo Hannah’s point about what do we know about how effective traditional grantmaking is. Clearly, we still have challenges in this world that haven’t been solved by traditional philanthropy, and we have a lot of evaluations out there that talk about harm that has potentially been done when groups are continually marginalized, and in that space, in that way again harmed again when they’re excluded from decision-making processes.
Two other points that at the Disability Rights Fund, our grantees do provide input on where advocacy priorities need to be. Year to year we bring grantees together to grantee convenings, and they tell us there is maybe a mental health act that is not disability-inclusive, that is not rights-based, looking at mental health from a more medical model versus a human rights model, and that needs to be funded. So that becomes a priority that the movement galvanizes around. They come together and decide that they provide a coalition on.
And then the second point that I wanted to make as well in terms of the time it takes for even grantmaking processes, that really if we’re talking about funding communities that again have been marginalized, you actually probably and hopefully have in place even in traditional philanthropy a process of accompaniment with potential grantees, with your applicants, and our program officers are often spending anywhere from one to three years working with different organizations of persons with disabilities talking about what pieces need to be in place for applications to be successful, and then our funders have become more flexible over the years to provide that funding.
So if you do need a safeguarding policy as Hannah had mentioned or if you do need bylaws for your board, and those are things that you will commit to do over a period of time, we’ll be able to work with you and fund those pieces. So barriers should not be in place because organizational requirements haven’t been met, and hopefully regardless of how the decision-making model is happening, that that partnership is already happening. Hopefully that’s not any different in participatory grantmaking.
Bonnie Chiu: Thank you so much. Thank you, Hannah and Melanie, you’ve shared so many great insights. I think a few things I’ve taken away from this. The first thing is participatory grantmaking is not hard. There are lots of things that we can learn from people who have gone before us just to try so hopefully many of you will join Hannah’s community of practice, the Google Group, so you can continue to learn more.
I think secondly, we have learned so much about how traditional grantmaking actually is falling short, and it helps us reflect on some of the questions we ask of participatory grantmaking like the time it takes to resource it, and conflicts of interest, are we also asking the same of traditional grantmaking. It just really holds up a mirror to us to reflect on even our current practice. I’ll now hand it back to Sheri just to say anything else from the organizer’s perspective but it’s been a great pleasure just having this discussion. Thank you for having us.
- Book: Letting Go
- Report: Deciding Together
- Report: Grassroots grantmaking: embedding participatory approaches in funding
- Resource: PGM Community of Practice
- Resource: Disability Rights Advocacy Fund Theory of Change