Editorial: Ground Game

Moving money to unfamiliar places is hard. That’s why philanthropy leaders are innovating by shifting power to the grassroots

March 2024
Supported By :
Magic Cabinet

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the country’s grassroots organizers sprung into action.

Community centers set up mutual aid programs and housing for refugees. Local nonprofits and community groups expanded their activities, virtually overnight, to provide things like psychosocial support for teens, help procuring passports, and basic needs like food and diapers. Grassroots NGOs have been on Ukraine's humanitarian frontlines.

This kind of ground-level response has been key to Ukraine's resilience. Yet many grassroots leaders in Ukraine feel that the international donor community has not treated them with enough respect. Our feature story, If Not Not, When?, features the Ukrainians who signed an open letter to international donors demanding more direct funding, unrestricted support and control over the grantmaking process.

In a world beset by crises, one undeniable fact is that the most effective solutions often come from local, grassroots leaders offering the perspective of local and cultural context. So why is philanthropy so resistant to trust on-the-ground wisdom?

That's the question we'll explore in Grassroots Grantmaking – a new vertical at Proximate covering the growing movement to reform philanthropy by shifting power to the grassroots.

Centering Proximity

As crises mount, donors want to support the most effective local solutions, fast – whether that’s sending aid for displaced families in Ukraine; responding to earthquakes in Morocco and wildfires in the western US; or supporting activists fighting the rollback of human rights and democracy around the world.

But a simple fact of philanthropy is that very often, the donors who are deciding where funding goes, and how it should get there, are not “proximate” to the problems they are addressing, or communities they aim to serve – either physically or culturally. This “lived experience gap” results in grantmaking that is less responsive, less creative and ultimately less effective.

Grassroots grantmakers are those leaders working outside and inside the field of philanthropy to advocate for models that center impacted communities in the grantmaking process. That takes the form of inviting lived experience leaders to the table to make decisions about grant funding; offering flexible, no-strings-attached grants that demonstrate trust in grassroots organizations; or rethink governance of a grantmaking institution to involve those traditionally not at the table.

We’re going to cover this movement in our new vertical, through a series of newsletters that include original solutions journalism articles, profiles, and updates from the field. The first edition of the newsletter is called Ground Game, and in our first feature story, we’ll meet the grassroots activists in Ukraine who are calling on foreign donors to give to frontline activists directly, and use trust-based models like participatory grantmaking.

Equitable and effective

We hope to show that grassroots grantmaking is not just more equitable; it can also be more cost-effective. A 2022 study, Passing the Buck, found that in the context of international development, local leaders can deliver programming that is 32% more cost efficient than international intermediaries, by stripping out inflated overhead and salary costs. That would equate to roughly four billion dollars in annual savings – funding that would cover the entire UN humanitarian appeal for Ukraine in 2022.

Can philanthropy ever be democratized? That was the question posed this summer in and Inside Philanthropy oped by Philip Rojc. These models are not easy, and in this vertical we’ll explore where participatory philanthropy can go wrong. We'll also highlight movement hubs like the Participatory Grantmaking Community, Trust-Based Philanthropy Project and #ShiftThePower that are advocating for community-led grantmaking by sharing what works and what doesn't.

Grassroots grantmaking may not be easy, but it is necessary. We believe that in the long run, the best way for philanthropy to innovate to meet today's needs is to tap into the ground-level innovation already happening at the grassroots.

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