What is Participatory Grant Making and is it the answer ?
Updated: Jan 19
As 2023 gets underway, there continues to be a growing emergence of funders waking up the lessons of 2020-2022 and actively taking steps to alter the way that they distribute money and resources.
The Covid19 pandemic, national lockdowns and the current Cost-of-Living crisis have placed a stark spotlight on funder practice. Now, as keyworkers strike and energy and food prices continue to rise, it’s clear that those who were suffering the most before, will continue to suffer the most if we don’t make some radical changes.
On the funding landscape, participatory grant making is growing in favour. You have probably seen this phrase increasingly used. Indeed, some funders have been taking part in collaborative models for some time, passing decision-making authority to the communities that they wish to reach and flipping the power balance both within themselves and collectively. Take Comic Relief’s model of Intermediary Partner with The Global Majority Fund. Two phases of this participatory grant have now been distributed to BME groups, through a framework of mutual learning and planning. See: Comic Relief delivers new £2.8m fund to specialist UK projects tackling Covid-19 racial inequalities
Other examples include the Participatory Grant Makers network : Participatory Grantmakers Community (participatorygrantmaking.org) and Funders Collaborative Hub: Funders Collaborative Hub
Many other funders are only just beginning to dip their toes in the water but are unsure exactly how to overhaul their funding methods. To get that far though is still progress and to be applauded – realising and recognising the need to address equality, diversity and inclusion through total change means having taken a hard look in the mirror. Pressure to address diversity and inclusion due to the Black Lives Matter movement and growing awareness of how race and class are treated in philanthropy, shows that the power imbalance is real and must change. Minority communities have been kept out of the finance circles for too long, perpetuating the barriers to social mobility and maintaining a hierarchy both within fundraising (See #CharitySoWhite and #WorkingClassFundraisers) and outside of it. Inclusion of these communities – and those within them - in all their forms of intersectionality is vital, starting with giving space and power to these groups in the pursuit of social action.
So, can participatory grant making help? And what exactly does it look like?
Participatory grant making comes in several forms, each with its own merits. For funders considering altering their policies and approach, deciding which model to take will depend upon the unique needs of the communities that you wish to reach. It may be that several different approaches are needed. That’s the thing about intersectionality – it’s both unique and complex. There is no one size fits all.
Personally, I am not sure participatory grant making is the right phrase for this work. For one, ‘participatory’ implies allowing someone to take part, participate, in something which is held, controlled, organised or founded by another. It indicates that permission has been given to join which to my mind, does nothing to address power imbalance. However, in the absence of a better phrase and in recognition of its growing use, I will continue to use this for the purposes of this piece.
Models of participatory grant making:
Representation: This is the most common form of this grant making. It’s been in practice for some time with those from diverse communities invited to join in on boards. However often, we see that those who take part feel that their views and decisions are vetoed and that their representation is only permitted at surface-level or on a temporary basis.
Partner: This model involves appointing partner organisations to make the decisions and distribute the funds to their communities. This model makes good use of infrastructure bodies who know their communities well and who have established trust. However, this model does require the Primary Funder to be flexible and allow for differences, giving authority to the partner organisation and taking the position of a partner.
Community Collection: Basically, crowdfunding and/or match funding, this model means that the community votes or decides on where the funds are distributed and contribute from within themselves. This model still requires flexibility on the part of the funder and can exclude some smaller, niche or grassroots charities where need is not so well known.
Community Board: Forming a community board is a great idea provided there is diversity within the board . All board members should bring lived experience, and all need equal space. The board then makes decisions collectively.
All these models have their plus points but what is important most of all is the learning which takes place – before, during and after. Learning needs to be two-way, of charities about grant funding and practice and of funders about the communities and challenges that they face. This learning then needs to be on-going and embedded through annual review to ensure that whatever form of participatory grant making takes place, it is a truly a user-led approach.
So, is participatory grant making the answer to true inclusion?
Possibly. Shifting the power of where and who holds money to those who need it, will bring about equity if those groups are truly in charge of where that money goes. To shift the power means to shift the culture and this must be a top-down approach, sector wide and permanent. We have a long way to go but this form of grant making could make a big difference. Like most things in the charity sector, it needs everyone on board together to really achieve change.