How We Did It: Building the PGM Community of Practice

A reflection on the growth of the 1,500-person participatory grantmaking community

March 2024
Hannah Paterson
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The Participatory Grantmaking Community was born early in 2020, on a Zoom call with 12 people.

The Community started as a simple listserv, with philanthropy practitioners comparing notes on their participatory grantmaking processes, and comparing better practices. But within the following weeks and months, more people started to join, and the Community grew... and grew.

Recently we passed an incredible milestone: 1,500 people signed up to the PGM Community listserv, along with the more than 500 people on our Slack.

This rapid growth is reflective of the interest across the sector in rethinking philanthropy and shifting power to communities. But it’s also an example of how to create strong, engaging online communities of practice.

Our model enables people to share as they go along, unpacking difficult challenges and questions, together — questions as far-ranging from how to compensate peer reviewers… or how to develop a trauma-informed approach to safeguarding grantees… or how to say “participatory grantmaking” in French.

Here are some of the things we’ve learnt about building a community of practice, that we want to share with anyone else hoping to build something wonderful.

Bless the mess.

One of the things we think makes the Community what it is, is the mess. Sometimes the tech breaks or we forget something. Sometimes we chat about the weather before we start a call.

This mess helps people understand we’re volunteer-run and not some professional, faceless entity. It makes people feel a bit more at ease and at home in our spaces.

It helps us centre relationships and show we’re people who are fallible — and fun!

Stay flexible and nimble.

Get comfortable with ambiguity, complexity and change. If what you’re doing isn’t constantly adapting and iterating, it’s not fit for purpose. The world is constantly changing. We can’t rest on what was.

We can learn from the past but we can’t get stuck there. Figure out how the work can be nimble and flexible, speeding up or slowing down depending on the needs of the people involved and work to be done.

We’ve really held onto our volunteer roots by doing this. We’ve worked hard to push against the professionalisation that often stifles creativity and the people doing the work in the social sector, and learn from other movements that have paved the way before us.

We’ve been slow and careful in how we design our decision-making. It means that we can be flexible in the work around the needs of the Community and our volunteers. It enables us to be current.

Embody the work.

We try really hard to embody the values we are encouraging others to use. We aren’t perfect but we are constantly reflecting on and developing our practices.

We offer compensation to all our speakers, our facilitators and our accountability circle. We’ve developed transparent accounting to manage our finances. We create our content based on Community feedback. We build relationships and networks. We’ve designed our governance to represent the global movement.

Practice humility; interrogate the ego and reflect on positionality.

When the Community started, it revolved around one person. This approach helped us establish ourselves but it wasn’t sustainable for them to hold all the work.

Since then, we’ve developed a more collaborative approach: a collective of people to help us be flexible and flow depending on capacity. We’ve worked hard to make sure the Community is not one person, bringing in more facilitators that better reflect the diversity of the Community. We've also brought in Coordinators that can help with the organising, and elected an Accountability Circle that has helped lead the strategic direction of the Community.

Say thanks, give gratitude.

We are purposeful with our thanks. We give it often and with sincerity. We say thanks publicly and privately and at every opportunity.

We want those we work with to understand how grateful we are for their time, wisdom and support. We recognise what people give up to be able to give to us and we recognise the work that they have done to share with us.

Trust those around you.

This is all about community, people, networks and relationships. Build those so that you can trust the collective to make good decisions and talk through the difficult scenarios before they happen. Work out ways people can step back and feel safe and secure in the decisions people make, even if it wasn’t the one you would make.

Our differences are our strengths. Lean into these. Don’t feel that one person owns everything. Trust that when one person needs to step away, the collective will step up. If they don’t, it isn’t strong enough to last the course — and that’s ok.

Be visionary, imaginative and tangible.

How do you stretch the practice of everyone involved? The Participatory Grantmaking Community is a broad church. We develop our programming so there’s something that (hopefully) expands not only your thinking, but also provides the guidance, connections and tools to expand your work. We’ve ensured that we build future thinking into our approaches.

We get creative and imaginative with what we deliver. No one wants to be in a boring soulless webinar.

Make sure to succession plan, and think about the end at the beginning.

The Community isn’t here to live in perpetuity. Participatory grantmaking shouldn’t be the best way of distributing funding in 5, 10 or 20 years. There should be something better that supersedes it — which means we need to think about how we close this chapter to make way for the next.

In order to do this we seek out, support and nourish future generations and those who outgrow us. Don't be scared or put off by an ending or a new way of working, but move towards it with grace and care.

Centre community and joy.

One of the main reasons the Participatory Grantmaking Community was created was recognising philanthropy is broken, but understanding that trying to imagine and create something better is hard, lonely, and frustrating.

Having friends to turn to and finding joy in the work is the thing that enables us to sustain, stay sane and grow the work.

Keep having the existential crisis.

I firmly believe that if you aren’t having a bit of an existential crisis about the work, what it achieves and the harm it could be inadvertently doing, then you’re not doing the work well.

This uncomfortable, ambiguous, sometimes painful space is always where the growth happens. If you’re comfy and it’s easy, it’s time to reflect and change something.

Hannah Paterson (she/her) is a founder of the Participatory Grantmaking Community.

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