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Practicing Participatory Philanthropy: Five Key Findings

The Conant Family Foundation's participatory grantmaking process was featured in an article published in NPQ, NonProfit Quarterly on October 10, 2023. You can see the original article here.

How can family foundations and donors stop perpetuating inequities within the communities and causes they serve? By centering community leadership, wisdom, and voices in grantmaking. This approach to giving is known as participatory philanthropy.

As two practitioners of participatory philanthropy who have worked with a wide range of foundations, we know that some private philanthropies, including institutional and family foundations, have actively begun to explore and take on meaningful participation. We are excited by the possibilities that this direction can unlock. We are also, however, acutely aware of the glacial pace at which this change is happening in the sector, and we generally observe those holding the largest purse strings also holding on most tightly to their power. It is our belief that the more dollars a foundation holds, the more community oversight and control there should be. Yet this is almost never the case.

For example, a 2021 study by the University of Washington of large philanthropic foundations found that 88 percent of them believe involving their stakeholders makes for more effective grantmaking. Yet in the same study, only 10 percent reported allowing grantees or community members most affected by the foundation’s funding to decide how to allocate grant funds. Why do so few of these large foundations shift meaningful decisions and power to the communities they serve when they know it will lead to more effective grantmaking?

To gain a better understanding of these issues, we interviewed trustees and staff at Mott Foundation, Kolibri Foundation, Conant Family Foundation, Chorus Foundation, Bush Foundation, and one anonymous family foundation. Our conversations reinforce that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to shifting power in philanthropy, but there are lessons that can help guide those eager to dive in. If these foundations can do it, many others can too.

Below are five leading findings that came through loud and clear in our research.

Shift Power The first finding of our research is that for participatory grantmaking to be meaningful, those who hold the most power within the foundation must commit to shifting power.

A political commitment to shift power is a critical first step, one that must come from those who hold the most power within a foundation. This much is clear, but perhaps the more interesting question is what might precipitate people who have power in philanthropy to voluntarily relinquish their authority.

For some, participating in spaces like Solidaire and Resource Generation, where they have the opportunity to learn with peers and unpack issues of power and privilege, moved them to act. Several foundations also pointed to a generational shift in family leadership as an impetus to shift power. For example, Leslie Ramyk from Conant shared that programs led by millennials have done the most participatory philanthropy in their foundation.

The notion of stewardship is also important. Eileen Briggs explained that for Bush Foundation the key to gaining support for the shift in power was to tie it to original donor intent and the board’s principle that “this is not our money it belongs to the community.” She built on this as she shared how they formed their community advisory councils: “We wanted the lightest of frameworks to guide the initiatives and we came in thinking: ‘It’s a lot of money, but we’re not going to decide this. It’s going to be the community.’” “If we are truly talking about shifting power, it’s not making tweaks in your grantmaking, it’s completely rethinking the model of philanthropy.”

The will to cede authority, however, is not necessarily enough to make the shift in power effective. Indeed, we found that many of the skills needed to make that shift may need to come from outside of the foundation staff or family.

Foundations highlighted the importance of bringing external people in for support and guidance. Monica George at Conant said, “This [shift] would not have happened without a non-family member as our [executive director].” Eileen Farbman at Kolibri emphasized the value of having a facilitator with deep expertise to help the family find alignment in their approach, and the critical role their board—made up of movement leaders—plays in governance and grant decision making.

Question the Philanthropic Model Our second research finding is to start not with a specific answer in mind, but rather to focus on asking big questions about how to change the entire philanthropic model to center communities, not funders.

Many interviewees shared a strong desire to do philanthropy differently, intrigued by the challenge of how to cede or shift power. They reflected that shifting power requires more than “rearranging the furniture.” As Ramyk put it: “If we are truly talking about shifting power, it’s not making tweaks in your grantmaking, it’s completely rethinking the model of philanthropy.”

Farbman added that the key to their shift was to “ask questions around power—what does it look like to cede control?” George noted that staff at Conant knew people with lived experience should be involved, but initially, they didn’t know how. They asked themselves: “How can we invent a new process that feels more equitable and whereby we can invite new people who are qualified to make decisions? How can we relinquish as much power as possible so that this makes sense?”

In short, to develop an approach that fits with the culture of philanthropy seeking to transform its giving practices, it is important to proceed with a learning orientation.

Customize the Approach Our third research finding is that there are no easy shortcuts or clean templates. Shifting power requires funders to be as dynamic and adaptable as the communities and movements they seek to serve. When foundations commit to shifting power as a principle and process, it leads to different models and dynamic approaches.

In other words, the form participation takes varies for each foundation, but the function is the same: to shift decision making about where resources are allocated to the communities and movements they serve. As a result, participation will look different in different institutions. For instance, the Bush Foundation relies on community advisory councils to guide its giving, while Kolibri Foundation has changed its entire board to be led by people from movements.

For the Chorus Foundation, their model has taken time to develop; they did not start knowing what it would look like. Farhad Ebrahimi, founder and president of Chorus stated that “none of our mechanisms for democratic decision-making sprung forth fully formed from Zeus’ skull.” He added, “They were all built on previously made ‘conventional’ decisions: the long-term, general operating grants we’d already made in each geography. Starting with these anchor grantees, we asked, ‘What would it look like for us to open up the decision-making?’”

These big shifts often don’t happen all at once. They take time. A staff member at the anonymous family foundation reflects: “The commitment to learn and adapt—it can feel slow or glacial but it’s a compass that has been returned to.”

The central principle here is the need to tailor responses to both the foundation in question and the movements being supported—and being willing to iterate the approach over time.

Design New Roles and Identities Our fourth research finding is that shifting power requires everyone to think about their role and identity differently. Reimagining roles both within and outside of the organization enables funders to strengthen their impact. Traditional philanthropy has largely standardized roles: boards of directors approve, managers direct, program officers select, communities receive, and so on. Shifting power redefines these structures; it is no surprise that this process has an impact on how people in long-held positions see themselves and each other.

During our interviews, we found that this shift in roles was uncomfortable for many at first. For funders, it raises questions such as “What is my role is if it is to not make decisions about where money is going?” For community members, it brings up, “Do I want to be seen as someone who is making decisions about resources in my community?” and “Do I trust this foundation to listen to me?”

George explains what she perceives to be a fear about changing roles, noting that there’s a “fear that what’s implemented won’t honor the legacy of the person or the name or the foundation.” Because of that, she theorizes, foundation boards are reluctant to share power and instead end up hoarding power and wealth.

Farbman reflects on the importance of identity as it relates to shifting power: “Funders can be attached to one way of being, their identity is grounded in being the decision maker….When you shift power, this changes, and suddenly your response is ‘I need to talk to our movement-led board or staff.’ This is a real shift for many of us in philanthropy.”

Briggs shared her experience of shifting power as foundation staff: “Now I’m not making [decisions] in the same way. My own perception of myself as a grantmaker had to change. And ultimately, it was better for the community.”

This discomfort can extend to community members, particularly regarding how roles come to be: not assumed but rather co-created. Ebrahmi agrees, having heard some grantees share that they do not want to be asked where money should be distributed.

A few of the trustees we interviewed also reflected on the opportunity created when foundation boards and staff reimagine their roles. Farbman shared that “the fear is you’ll be invisible and have no voice, but it’s not that—it’s finding your voice in the structure. The movement voices are stronger because they are grounded in the work. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a voice—I just have a different voice.”

Ebrahimi shares a similar reflection: “One intervention is helping funders find their [place] in not being the people who decide where money goes. It is best when people are seen as organizers in their own sector who appreciate that their role is to collect and influence their peers.

And while Farbman acknowledges that many funders are challenged by a shift in their identity, she asks them to consider a powerful idea: “This model could be your identity—you could be known as those who give up power, those who are led by movements and communities. It’s so much more interesting, powerful, better for movements and better for the change we hope to see in the world.”

In short, participatory grantmaking requires challenging standard roles and identities. If the transformation is successful, the funder becomes much more of a facilitator and organizer, and much less of a gatekeeper or evaluator.

“By having a movement-led board, we are going to give up control and that is going to be hard. We need to be open and honest about that.”

Dedicate the Time Our fifth and final main research finding is that shifting power takes time, practice, and trial and error. It’s not easy. It also accelerates social change and creates new possibilities. As noted above, when funders adopt participation and shift power, identities change, processes morph, and values are clarified. This work can be difficult to do, and it requires a firm commitment to the process and to unlearning traditional ways of working.

Farbman from Kolibri shares how important it is to embrace the challenge: “By having a movement-led board, we are going to give up control and that is going to be hard. We need to be open and honest about that and not go in with fear. It’s a journey, with lessons, and does not come without its own pain points.”

As frameworks and processes are redesigned, everything may need to be regularly reassessed. Coung Hoang of the Chorus Foundation shared that “what a group of people decide today may not be the same as in three years.” Ultimately, Hoang urged, we must be open to these changes. Ebrahimi agreed: “We try to build good processes and structures and take them seriously, but they’re only as good as our willingness to subvert and change them if they’re not working.”

Everyone we spoke to shared that, without a doubt, the benefits outweigh any challenge because of the results and the possibilities that emerge.

Briggs, whose foundation focuses on supporting Native people, noted that when her foundation asked Native communities and leaders what they need, “They came back with things we had never thought of” including ideas for support systems and generational wealth creation.

Kimberly Robertson from the Mott Foundation explained that moving to a model of voting on grants was not an easy change to make but acknowledged that it yielded more meaningful outcomes. Through its Focus on Flint initiative, staff held more than 30 community conversations and then asked residents to vote on how to grant $1 million toward strengthening neighborhoods after they said that was their top priority. Robertson notes, “When you ask people what they want, you get different results.”

The Conant Family Foundation shared how transformative it was to have community members move from being a review team to being the grants team where funding decisions were made. They came up with practices the foundation never would have thought of, like unrestricted grants plus funding for wellness.

At the Chorus Foundation, Ebrahimi already sees the effect beyond tangible outcomes, emphasizing that “over the course of our spend-down, democratic decision making around resource allocation became its own priority.”

Farbman speaks for many when she emphasizes the value of having people from the movement in leadership roles at the foundation. “It’s transformational to be honest.” An investment of time in shifting power is not just the right thing to do but pays off in ways that many of these foundation leaders could not anticipate going in.

Where Do We Go from Here? The experiences of these foundations serve as evidence of what most foundation respondents in the University of Washington survey believe: that involving stakeholders in decision making leads to more effective grantmaking. Our hope is that by sharing these reflections and experiences, the gap between interest and implementation might shrink.

The key findings of our research can serve as guideposts toward this end: 1) commit to shifting power, 2) ask questions that challenge the standard operating philanthropic model, 3) customize the approach to fit your community; 4) retool roles and identities, and 5) dedicate the time necessary for the power shift to stick.

We are grateful that foundation leaders were willing to share their reflections, and we are optimistic that these are useful to others who are ready to explore participation in their philanthropy.

We hope the journey is a beautiful one. As Ebrahimi shared, moving towards participatory approaches requires us to embrace the idea that our work “will be imperfect, but it will be okay.”

About the authors Katy LoveKaty Love is an independent consultant who works with funders to shift power to the communities they serve. Before that, she was the director of grantmaking at the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that stewards Wikipedia. Jody MyrumJody Myrum is a feminist strategist and researcher who works across movements, organizations, and philanthropy to center girls and young feminists and to move resources to those working to build their collective power. Before that she was the director of the largest philanthropic initiative focused on girls at the NoVo Foundation and co-led the Global Resilience Fund at Purposeful.

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