Five reasons to support participatory grantmaking

By Rose Longhurst, to Alliance magazine

This year, UK grantmaker Edge Fund turns five. Since 2012 we’ve distributed more than £300,000, funded 175 grassroots groups, and learned a great deal about participatory grantmaking.

In brief, participatory grantmaking is a means of putting funding decisions into the hands of those affected by those decisions. A more detailed exploration can be found here.

To celebrate our fifth birthday, here are five reasons why participatory grantmaking is the future of philanthropy.

1.) Participation addresses power imbalances.
Soon after we launched, Edge Fund member Sophie Pritchard wrote an article for Alliance on models of power-sharing in philanthropy and another on philanthropic power dynamics.

Here she laid out the ambition for the Edge Fund: ‘to present an alternative funding model which breaks down the usual power dynamics in funding’. Participatory grantmaking can offer a way of overcoming some of these issues, because it blurs the lines between ‘funder’ and ‘grantee’, ‘decision-maker’ and ‘recipient’.

2.) Participation is effective.
In social justice circles, we often hear ‘Those who live it, know it’. Participatory grantmaking is effective because it utilises the expertise of those closest to the issue. Improved sustainability, problem-identification, and buy-in are just a few of the rewards on offer when decision-making is informed by those directly affected.

Drawing upon the knowledge of those with lived experience increases the efficacy of solutions. This can be especially helpful when working with hard-to-reach groups, such as the sex workers supported by participatory grantmaker Red Umbrella Fund.

3.) Participation offers legitimacy.
Traditional philanthropic models often rely upon just a few individuals as decision-makers. Many wealthy philanthropists, such as Peter Buffet, have challenged their legitimacy to make decisions about communities they have no direct experience of. Participatory grantmaking offers an opportunity to build an engaged constituency of active stakeholders, rather than passive ‘beneficiaries’.

True participation moves beyond community consultation to full ownership. The increasing profile of many remarkable community foundations is one manifestation of the rise of locally-led decision-making, as is participatory grantmaking.

4.) Participation is innovative.
Philanthropy is constantly evolving, but perhaps not fast enough. Despite centuries of traditional philanthropic giving, solvable problems continue to cause suffering. We’ve seen the emergence of innovative forms of charitable giving such as flow funding, impact investing and direct cash transfers.

Participatory grantmaking is not new, but despite its potential, few funders use it. Yet funders do not need to go as far as the Edge Fund to test innovative approaches to participatory decision-making. Pooled funding, such as the FundAction established by Guerrilla Foundation and others, offers a low-risk way of dipping a toe into new ways of working.

5.) Participation supports diversity.
The September issue of Alliance will highlight diversity issues in philanthropy. However there is already evidence that foundation staff and boards are not representative of the wider world (and especially of those communities they intend to serve.) Participatory grantmaking offers a way to involve those ‘unusual suspects’, and in doing so encourages all the benefits of increased diversity.

What can you do to be part of the movement towards participatory grantmaking? There is a spectrum of ways you can engage:

  • Transform your foundation into a participatory grant-maker!
  • Test participatory decision-making as a small part of your programming!
  • Or simply fund existing participatory grant-makers!

Edge Fund hopes to continue experimenting for another five years; why not join us?

Rose Longhurst is a member of Edge Fund and a member of EDGE Funders Alliance board of directors.

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