Shifting Power and Resources Through Participatory Grantmaking

May 14, 2019 – Grantmakers are increasingly looking at how they can involve grantees, community members and others in their philanthropy. One approach being advocated is “participatory grantmaking,” which cedes decision-making power about funding to nonprofit partners and the communities the foundation serves.

The USC Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy explored this topic on May 14 with Cynthia Gibson, a veteran social sector consultant and observer, and Katy Love, Director of Community Resources at the Wikimedia Foundation. Gibson, an expert on the topic, published a report for the Ford Foundation, Participatory Grantmaking: Has Its Time Come?, that explored the history and origins of participatory grantmaking as well as the benefits and challenges. More recently, she worked with Love, who is leading a participatory grantmaking effort at the Wikimedia Foundation, to develop a practice-oriented guide on participatory grantmaking: Deciding Together: Shifting Power and Resources Through Participatory Grantmaking.

The two shared their insights with a group of foundation leaders. They noted that interest in participatory grantmaking has grown in recent years, in part, because of waning trust in traditional institutions, including philanthropy. At the same time, the power of technology is enabling and encouraging broader participation. Together these forces and others underscore the value of greater transparency, co-creation and less hierarchy in how society can approach public problem-solving. It also helps to illustrate why and how funders around the world are engaging in this practice, which is shifting the traditional power dynamics in philanthropy.

Their analysis suggests that participatory approaches have the potential to empower historically marginalized groups, improve decision-making and lead to better results. However, they said that more research and evidence is needed to validate these claims, given that participatory processes are resource intensive, involving significant time and commitment from grantmakers.

Notably, Love and Gibson made clear that incorporating participatory approaches is not an “all or nothing” proposition. There is a spectrum of engagement that ranges from informing and consulting with grantees to involving them in two-way coordination and, ultimately, joint decision-making.

“Participatory approaches stem from a place of values that are aligned to mission,” Love said. “When you start out, you don’t have to design something very extensive or that gets you all the way to joint decision-making around funding. You can just jump in and try something. It’s really about building on an ethos that cuts across everything: the act of sharing power.”

The convening was part of The Center’s Leading Practitioner Discussion series, which provides a venue for the local philanthropic community to participate in intimate discussions with notable practitioners who have had a significant impact on the field.

The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy promotes more effective philanthropy and strengthens the nonprofit sector through research that informs philanthropic decision-making and public policy to advance community problem solving. The Center is a part of the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, which works to improve the quality of life for people and their communities, here and abroad.

For more information:
Please contact Nicholas Williams, Associate Director, The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy at nicholas.williams@price.usc.edu or (213) 740-8557.