Shifting Power Through Participatory Grantmaking

Image credit: Tim Mossholder

We are hungry for change. Hungry for new approaches. And most importantly, we are hungry for shifts in power. Now more than ever is the time to interrogate our most commonly held practices, and one such practice is the approach we take to allocating funds for our grantmaking.

Attorney Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy: A Story Of Justice And Redemption says, “We cannot create justice without getting close to places where injustices prevail. We have to get proximate.”

One way to achieve deeper inclusion and connection is through participatory grantmaking. This approach is especially timely as grantmakers, WDN included, reckon with what it will take to become an anti-racist network of philanthropic leaders. The old top-down decision-making model is increasingly falling short and failing us all.

“Generally, participatory philanthropy can include a range of activities, but focuses on how funding decisions get made. Why? Because money is power, and power dynamics are ubiquitous in philanthropy. Participatory grantmakers do not only acknowledge and talk about power; they break down barriers that keep people powerless through an approach that realigns incentives, cedes control, and upends entrenched hierarchies around funding decisions. To practitioners, participatory grantmaking isn’t a tactic or a one-off strategy; it is a power-shifting ethos that cuts across every aspect of the institution’s activities, policies, programs, and behaviors.”

– Nonprofit Quarterly

The practice is gaining traction. In fact, the Emergent Fund, which was established by WDN and other partners, is run by an activist-led advisory council. At Emergent Fund they believe in “expertise in communities and the best opportunities to help them acquire whole lifetimes of lived experience.” That’s why their grantmaking is governed by an advisory council composed of movement leaders, visionaries, and well-trusted organizers from the communities that the Fund was created to serve. The advisory council is proudly immigrant, Latinx, Muslim, Black, Native, Asian and LGBTQ+, and unapologetically committed to collective liberation.

Moving towards participatory grantmaking is an important shift for philanthropy, but ultimately funders will need to do more to contend with a colonized philanthropic mindset. We must find meaningful ways to not only give away money, but also power. 

Struggling With Power Issues, Entrenched Systems And An “All or Nothing” Mentality

Not everyone in philanthropy is ready to embrace participatory grantmaking because we are a field that struggles with power issues. For some, the challenges are related to entrenched structure and policy that seems immovable. For others it’s confusion around who the community really is. But for most, the challenge is an “all or nothing” mindset that leads funders into fatalism and hand wringing.

At WDN, we don’t shy away from the difficult conversations, and we are a community of learners and doers. If you would like to continue your exploration of participatory grantmaking, see below.

Join Us In Learning More About Participatory Grantmaking 



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