What We Learned From Chan Zuckerberg Initiative's PGM Report

The foundation released a report reflecting on their experiment with participatory grantmaking

March 2024
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In our running series What We Learned, we’ll share our takeaways from recent reports, white papers and studies – pulling out the most important takeaways and useful tidbits.

When Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, launched the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative in 2015, it announced the entry of a major new player in Bay Area philanthropy.

Since then, the foundation has awarded nearly $5 billion dollars in grants, with a focus on science, education and community work in California. It’s also been a leader on mission-driven investments, seeding nearly $300 million of its endowment into values-aligned ventures. It’s been the subject of praise and criticism, and throughout, it has cast a large shadow on the US philanthropy scene. That’s why their recent foray into participatory grantmaking – and their public reflection on the process – is notable.

CZI recently released a case study about their experience with participatory grantmaking. They chose their place-based Community Fund as the home of its initial experiments with PGM. The fund provides grants to organizations that support marginalized communities in California’s San Mateo County. While the fund’s first three cycles were directed by volunteer CZI staff members, for the 2021 and 2022 cycles, the foundation engaged local community members to sit on a series of “review panels” that weighed in on who received funding.

All told, these review panels had a say on funding that went to 139 organizations, totaling $13 million. Here’s what we learned from their reflective report:

  • They reached out to existing partners to recruit community panelists. The CZI team reached out to current partners, “primarily engaged in power-building work”, to recruit review panel members, followed by an “intentional screening and interview phase” to ensure that the candidates met the criteria, understood the requirements of the role – and were still interested. This included going over details such as NDAs and payments. 
  • The community panels didn’t have full control. Although the report claims that “the team’s primary focus when finalizing the decision was to ensure that the voices of the reviewers were respected”, it also says that the team “utilized a set of values and goals to guide the decision-making process” along with goals related to balancing the focus areas and geography within San Mateo County.
  • They considered language justice. “Language justice was a success and led to important learning. The team embedded a new practice into the work to allow for the participation of Non-English speaking community members. While there were only two monolingual Spanish speakers, having bi/multilingual panelists and speakers created a more inclusive environment. Virtual interpretation tools were used to conduct meetings in English and Spanish, and the learning series started with reminders on language justice principles.”
  • Reviewer bias came up: “The team noticed that bias showed up in reviews. This was evidenced by leniency toward specific organizations that provided resources that may have been particularly salient to a reviewer’s lived experience. There were also reviewers who scored, on average, higher or lower than most. It is normal to have this kind of distribution, so the team normalized scores in order to bring them within 1.5 standard deviation of another. The team also compared reviews of applications translated to Spanish with English reviews to ensure that there was not a statistically significant difference between reviews due to translation; there was not.”
  • They want to keep practicing participatory grantmaking. The report makes clear that “This approach has led to deeper partner relationships and support for the program and to increased representation of organizations in the portfolio with Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color at the staff, leadership, and board levels.” The report’s author, CZI’s Curtis Yancy, gave indications that this pilot program will continue. “Participatory Grantmaking is a vital tool that offers community partners with valuable lived experience a seat at the table,” he writes. “...We look forward to continuing this practice in the years to come.”
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