Join the Party: Why Participatory Grantmaking is Making a Big Splash


While grantmaking isn’t as dramatic (or as bloody, thankfully) as Game of Thrones, so much of grantmaking is about the struggle for power.

Grantmakers have tremendous power in the form of resources (knowledge, money, connections, etc.). Grantees have power through their deep connections in the community and specific skills that drive impact in certain areas. This balance can feel lopsided at times, but it’s clear that grantmakers and grantees need each other for the philanthropic sector to flourish.

They must learn to share power in order to achieve impact.

Enter participatory grantmaking: the practice of sharing greater power with grantees by empowering them with more control over philanthropic priorities and spending.

Participatory grantmaking—sometimes called networked philanthropy—takes grantmakers outside of the usual workflow and into exciting new territory with new and larger numbers of stakeholders. With more cooks in the kitchen, you’ll need to creatively implement existing grant management solutions or integrate multiple platforms to meet your needs.

The idea behind the concept is that those closest to the problems are often closest to the solutions as well. Major funders ranging from the Open Society Foundation, NoVo Foundation, and the Case Foundation have adopted participatory grantmaking methods into their broader portfolio of funding efforts in order to increase their impact

Through participatory grantmaking, the communities that grantees serve are more deeply involved in the allocation of grants. The benefits are two-fold: such participation can lead to better results and the involvement itself is considered a just and essential part of the modern grantmaking puzzle.

The participatory grantmaking framework centers around informing, consulting, and involving affected communities while deciding on grant allocations together (grantmakers, grantees, and communities).

Here’s a deeper look at how and why participatory grantmaking is trending in the philanthropic sector right now.

Why Participatory Grantmaking is Catching On

Why Participatory Grantmaking is Catching On

While grantees and grantmakers often agree on broad goals, they don’t always share the same vision in terms of process.

As social problems in communities have persisted, some have called into question the very systems being used in philanthropy and beyond to address these challenges. Participatory grantmaking alters the way grantmaking occurs in both subtle and significant ways in the hope of achieving deeper impact. Here are a few key elements of participatory grantmaking, which can look very different across contexts:

  • Decision-making processes involve the people most affected by the issues or problems being addressed
  • Local organizations and government are positioned to work with (instead of for) the general public
  • Diverse groups on community stakeholders participate equitably which leads to better outcomes
  • Professionals and issue experts don’t drive the process but work as partners with community members
  • Authentic participation can only occur when there is transparency about the process throughout
  • Two-way or multi-directional communication is emphasized over more didactic forms of communication

As mentioned earlier, there are significant power imbalances that exist between grantees and grantmakers. Grantees often feel like they must beg and chase down funders to be able to do their work. Bringing grantees into the conversation earlier and giving them real decision-making power reduces those power imbalances.

Here are some of the specific efforts that engage community members when it comes to participatory grantmaking—different from traditional, top-down funding schemes:

  • Conducting landscape analysis on specific issues
  • Developing funding strategies
  • Crafting funding criteria
  • Choosing funding priorities
  • Reviewing grant proposals
  • Supporting connected organizations using a participatory grantmaking approach
  • Joining site visits to organizations/grantees
  • Designing and executing evaluations of grantees
  • Deciding on final funding grants

This inversion of the historical power dynamic has already demonstrated considerable impacts. Some studies of participatory grantmaking have shown it to be more effective when looking at specific community interventions. By offering greater legitimacy to organizations doing the work and offering an innovative alternative to often-felt stagnation within organizations facing down big challenges, participatory grantmaking changes the game from within.

Participatory grantmaking also bakes vital considerations such as diversity, equity, and inclusion directly into its processes. By bringing new stakeholders to the table and giving them real power, better outcomes can be achieved as these new voices bring perspectives and potential solutions that were not previously considered.

Challenges of Participatory Grantmaking

Introducing more people into a process makes it more complex, but not necessarily less efficient.

Your task as a grantmaker taking up the mantle of participatory grantmaking: put the right systems in place to make the process as simple as possible. That starts with your grants management software.

How will community stakeholders engage with grant application documents?

How should peer and expert reviewers interact with community stakeholders within your review process?

What new tools and processes will you need to truly share power within and beyond your organization?

These are all critical questions that considering participatory grantmaking raises. Some of them can be answered through technical means—getting the right grants management system in place to support this goal. The rest is about helping people adjust to new ways of doing things in pursuit of better outcomes.

When it comes to specific challenges to participatory grantmaking, evaluation and monitoring are already tricky in the context of traditional grantmaking. Measuring social impact has never been simple and most grant reporting comes in the form of self-reported outcomes data from grantees themselves.

Participatory grantmaking further complicates matters by introducing stakeholders who might otherwise be subjects of evaluation into the actual decision-making process around a grant. Determining how to prevent conflicts of interest within the process becomes more of a priority.

Deciding who the implementers of the grant are versus those tasked with faithfully evaluating its outcome is also a challenge inherent to the highly-democratic approach in participatory grantmaking.

One of the biggest challenges to participatory grantmaking is how it rubs up against existing power structures (and how that could—in some cases—limit the reach of some organizations and funders). Take the example of the Brooklyn Community Foundation. The Foundation embarked on a community-led funding initiative, spoke with over 1000 residents, and the board ultimately implemented the recommendations from locals.

Challenges of Participatory Grantmaking

The challenging part came when recommendations went up against the plans of a board member who is also a real estate developer. With a focus on public spaces, the Foundation ran up against economic realities and forced a cultural shift in how communities are engaged in these issues.

In some cases, participatory grantmaking can be a vehicle for community empowerment. In others, it can surface tensions that might go unresolved through the grantmaking process itself. Another way of putting is that this sort of grantmaking may be affected by the power structures it is looking to challenge and change.

Participatory Grantmaking Demands the Grantmaking Software of the Future

A new way of grantmaking calls for new tools.

Submittable offers a modern grant management platform that helps you administer grant applications more efficiently, allowing your team to focus on more innovative strategies (i.e. participatory grantmaking) that build trust and efficacy among grantmakers and grantees.

Here are a few ways that Submittable makes participatory grantmaking much easier:

  • Coordinate large review teams
  • Review grants while reviewers are in different locations
  • Incorporate anonymous review tools

If you’re going to embrace a new approach like participatory grantmaking, make sure you’ve got the right systems in place to handle the basics before you pile on more complex ways of managing grants.

Your team and your grantees will thank you for giving them the right tools and sharing power with them to secure better outcomes for communities.

Paul Perry
Paul Perry

Paul Perry is a writer and former educator with significant experience in nonprofit management. He has a soft spot for grant-seekers striving to make the world a better, more just place.