A New Tool Pushes Foundations Beyond Participatory Grantmaking

Katy Love and Diana Samarasan on the launch of the Advancing Participation in Philanthropy Tool

June 2024
December 2023
June 17, 2024
Supported By :
Magic Cabinet

Now that participatory grantmaking has entered the mainstream, some are pushing the conversation beyond the domain of grant decisions, and challenging foundation leaders to think about how power plays out across all aspects of their work.

Katy Love and Diana Samarasan created the Advancing Participation in Philanthropy Tool after years of experience working as participatory grantmakers (at the Wikimedia Foundation and Disability Rights Fund, respectively), and later helping legacy foundations embed participatory practices into their models.

The tool is designed to help leaders at grantmaking foundations assess how they incorporate power-shifting practices across their organization. From communications to operations, the tool considers who participates in internal functions and how they participate, along a spectrum of participation.

It’s already been used by grantmakers like Fondation Botnar, Stupski Foundation, Diverse City Fund and Borealis Philanthropy’s Communities Transforming Policing Fund.

We spoke with Katy and Diana, and got into the nitty gritty about how the tool works and how it’s intended to be used.

Proximate

You write that this tool owes a lot to other resources and frameworks, including participatory grantmaking, trust-based philanthropy and feminist philanthropy. Why do you think frameworks are useful in general, and what are some examples of where frameworks really helped clarify things and changed behavior?

Katy Love

Frameworks can help people step back and see patterns and, hopefully, change them. 

For example, within narrative change approaches, there has been much attention paid to how to tell a story so people will be inspired to do something rather than feel a sense of desperation - which often leads them to put their head in the sand.

Different frameworks, such as solutions journalism or participatory journalism, have been created to shift narratives so people recognize themselves and feel compelled to act. A shift in framing about how society understands the issue of disability, from a medical framework to a social or human rights-based framework, for example, has been key to making change. The dominant narrative about disability has moved from a charity approach that depicts disabled people as passive victims to a rights-based approach where people with disabilities are creators and subjects of their own stories. 

In philanthropy, the dominant storyline that puts wealthy people in control and makes others grateful for their largesse is starting to shift. There are many reasons for this, but a part of the shift is because there has been a concerted push by key changemakers to upend the idea that decisions are better when done by those with wealth and in power.

These changemakers are often at the edges of philanthropy in intermediaries or community foundations; they have borrowed from the ladder of participation created by [Sherry] Arnstein that lays out various roles citizens can play. They have brought this concept into the grantmaking process, and by doing so, have tied a framework about participatory governance to how money is distributed. 

Proximate

The first category listed in the tool is governance/leadership; it's also probably one of the hardest places for leaders in traditional philanthropy to let go. Is there a reason you put it first?

Diana Samarasan

While there are now a growing number of funders who are practicing or piloting PGM with at least part of their grantmaking budget, there are relatively fewer who are considering or practicing participation of the communities they interact with throughout all of how they function.

For funders who want to address a shift in power, or decolonization, or localization, or justice, or feminism, considering participation in other functional areas is a logical step. What does it matter if decisions about grants are made by members of the community if all of the parameters surrounding those grants are still determined and owned by those in power?

This includes the grant strategy, the definition of success, grants budgets, due diligence and reporting requirements, communications, investments, and more. If all of this is still controlled by the foundation’s governance and leadership, there is a very small margin for actual decision-making by those community members who are involved in grants decisions.

Fundamental change rarely happens without a change in the power structure. Especially in a more hierarchical organizational model, governance and leadership tend to have the final say when it comes to almost everything. Without shifting power at this level, other changes may be short-lived or less meaningful; they may be co-opted or used to whitewash ongoing inequity at a deeper level. 

Even if a foundation turns its governance structure over to the community it serves, say, with a traditional board structure with a majority of community members, it’s important to not stop there. Changing practices and structures in one functional area - even if it is governance - will not uproot and transform power; power can still be consolidated. There need to be ongoing efforts to mitigate this, for example, with term limits, ensuring attention to representation of diverse people with marginalized identities, and continuous interrogation of decisions. 

Proximate

Participatory fundraising (for public foundations) is probably a new concept for people. Why did you think it was important to talk about where funds are raised from?

Katy Love

This area of the tool was particularly inspired by the work of Community Centric Fundraising, which grounds its principles in racial and economic justice.  

Since philanthropy is essentially about redistributing financial resources, we think it’s important to consider where those resources come from. Too often, resources have come from sources that have contributed to the problem that is being addressed by the grantmaker.

At the very least, transparency about the origins of funding is important. For grantmakers who fundraise themselves - intermediary or public foundations - a dialogue with the community about what funding is ethical to accept is important. 

In the APPT, we get into a lot more than ethical screens around accepting funding, though. We ask, for example, who ‘owns’ the successes shared back with donors to a public foundation? And, “Who is involved in and compensated for donor interactions with grantees and community?” 

It is important to note that the tool does not assume that communities want to be involved with fundraising. The important step is for the foundation to ask. If the answer is yes, ensure that community members understand where funding comes from, have a role in developing any fundraising strategy, and are able to determine relationships with donors.

Proximate

This tool is designed for grantmakers and philanthropy professionals, but I've already found it useful for conversations with NGO leaders – encouraging them to think through the various ways they hold power "over" communities they work with, and how they can bring participation into their communications, impact measurement and leadership. Was that relevance intentional?

Diana Samarasan

It is certainly not just the philanthropic field that must shift power to people they serve – participation in decisions that affect our lives is a human right that applies everywhere!

We agree that the spectrum of participation in the tool can be useful in the context of broader civil society. In fact, Diana was already part of a presentation within the RINGO (Reimagining the INGO) community to talk about how the participation principles we used to develop the APPT can apply to the relationship of INGOs to local communities. She and Dennis Arends of Porticus Foundation (the funder who has provided resources to develop the APPT) also spoke as part of a SmarterTogether webinar about how these principles align with the ideas of collective intelligence that are being used to strengthen democratic processes.

In addition to the APPT, there are other relevant assessment frameworks like Partos’ Power Awareness Tool focused towards those working in development and humanitarian contexts, or the Full Frame Initiative’s Centering Community  Assessment Tool. The Full Frame tool even incorporates a survey for community members themselves to review the organization serving them, which we love. 

Proximate

What's the role of grantees/activists/NGO leaders in educating philanthropists about this tool? 

Katy Love

Civil society has been pushing philanthropy to change for at least decades, encouraging funders to end extractive, harmful, patriarchal, racist and tokenistic practices. We hope the APPT tool gives advocates for change in philanthropy a concrete way to assess current levels of power sharing and to chart a course for where to go next. 

Because we believe passionately in shifting power in philanthropy, and this will require large-scale change, we decided to make the tool open access so anyone can use it. Foundations already interested in participation of people impacted by their funding may easily find it (we hope). At the same time, organizations who receive funding from philanthropy and activists can also bring donors’ attention to the tool. 

The origin story for this tool is interesting – we had actually started with the idea of an external audit, where communities of people impacted by a foundation or grantees, or some external party, could perform an audit of the foundation as a whole. We imagined that these people would review the foundation’s policies, practices, and records and have interviews with staff, board, and partners. When we started to move that idea forward a few years ago, though, we asked a bunch of folks working on change in philanthropy about whether this idea was a good one.

Almost everyone told us no, it was not the right moment. What they meant was, there was not a large enough embrace of participatory principles. They believed that few foundations would use the tool, and it was not the right way to advance this change we wanted to see. They felt that a carrot that encouraged foundations to make change would work better than a judgment. Because of this, we moved into developing a self-assessment tool. But we still believe that an audit tool is necessary. 

We dream that someday there will be more codification of what participation of people with lived experience looks like in philanthropy: what are the requirements, and what is the gold standard? Perhaps that could be some kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, so that it means something, and the risk of ‘participation washing’ is mitigated and it’s clear what steps are in place to shift power. 

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