The Power of Letting Go: Is Participatory Grantmaking the Future of Philanthropy?

Ben Wrobel and Meg Massey

Co-authors of Letting Go: How Philanthropists and Impact Investors Can Do The Most Good by Giving Up Control

In 2011, two experienced grantmakers named Kristi Kimball and Malka Kopell wrote an essay in the Stanford Social Innovation Review comparing grantmaking to surfing.

“We would probably be better off as a society,” they wrote, if the decision-makers in the nation’s large private foundations took up surfing:

“Why? Because surfing is about letting go….Surfing is incredibly humbling, an encounter with the enormous power, beauty, and unpredictability of the ocean. No surfer would attempt to change the shape of the waves or the schedule of the tides, because these forces are far beyond any one person’s control. Just as men cannot control oceans, individual foundations cannot control social systems….Such an approach underestimates the vast power and complexity of the systems in which foundations are attempting to intervene.”

We are living in a time when philanthropy is at a moment of reckoning. Many grantees and social entrepreneurs feel disconnected from and disrespected by the institutions that fund them, and massive inequality is creating a chasm of lived experience between people with money and people with ideas.

Our suggestion is a massive injection of participation — an embrace of “participatory grantmaking”, a movement to democratize entrepreneurship and lift up the voices of people with lived experience. It’s a solution that requires radical humility, creative process innovation, and most of all, the willingness to let go.


What is participatory grantmaking?

Participatory grantmaking is the process of shifting decision-making power over grantmaking to the very communities most affected by them. It’s a structural fix to the broken power dynamics in traditional funding—moving philanthropy and impact investing away from a model that is closed, opaque and expert-driven, to one that is open, transparent and community-driven.

At its most basic, any grantmaking process has three broad decision points: creating a theory of change, building a pipeline and deciding who should get funding. Participatory grantmaking boils down to a series of choices that grantmakers or investors can make at each of those decision points to systematically incorporate community voice. They can invite affected communities to come up with priorities for a given year; they can tap into outside networks to build a more inclusive pipeline; or they can create external decision-making committees to review applications and vote on who gets funded.

The key element behind any participatory funding process is that the funder gives a voice to people who don’t usually get a say in the decision, voluntarily letting go of power in the process. Above all, it requires a deep dose of humility, an acknowledgment by the funder that they do not have all the answers.

In our book, we describe the two big arguments that advocates of participatory grantmaking tend to make. The “inside argument” focuses on efficacy and outcomes. It makes the case that shifting decision-making power will result in better decisions -and that there is a quantitative value to tapping into perspectives beyond the ivory tower. There is certainly evidence from participatory budgeting and other participatory processes that more voices results in greater impact.

Meanwhile, the “outside argument” focuses on the moral dimension of participatory decision-making. This line of thinking ties participatory funding to broader movements for justice and equity. It places philanthropy in the broader context of a society that values efficiency over equity, of failing democratic institutions and ongoing oppression and colonization. It is especially important at this moment in history, when philanthropy is being reimagined.


Participatory grantmaking in the UK

Participatory grantmaking is having a moment in the UK, with foundations large and small running participatory pilots.

For instance, Camden Giving was founded in 2017 to support economic equality and racial justice in Camden, and they have made participatory grantmaking a key part of their mission. They have recruited a pool of “community grant panellists”, who are paid for their time to help create fund aims, review criteria and application forms; and make decisions on grant awards at panel meetings. Collectively these community members have awarded grants of around £700k; and offered continuous feedback on how Camden Giving can improve their approach and processes.

Larger foundations have begun experimenting with participation as well. The National Community Lottery Fund is currently running eight experiments in participatory grantmaking, and building an evidence base to help them make strategic choices about when and where itPGM is the best approach to use. For instance, their Phoenix Fund is a collaborative funding programme developed with Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities across England where funding decisions are made collaboratively with BAME staff and community members; and their Leaders with Lived Experience Programme uses a model of co-design to create funding priorities and final grantmaking decisions.


What is the future of participatory grantmaking?

Still, the reality is that participatory grantmaking still makes up a tiny percentage of all social sector funding, in the UK and around the world. People in positions of power don’t always welcome the idea of engaging outside voices, with reactions that range from scepticism to fear. Foundation boards, investment committees, and wealth advisers have an obligation to the money they manage—and can understandably feel that outsourcing the decision-making power would be an abdication of responsibility.

There are answers to those concerns, to be found in places like Candid’s guide Deciding Together and a growing community of practice called the Participatory Grantmaking Community. Participatory grantmaking is a field with rapidly proliferating best practices and peer support, and the next several years will decide how large and how fast it is embraced.

In the preface to our book, Edgar Villanueva envisions a social sector where at least fifty percent of the people who make decisions about funding have direct lived experience of the problems they’re trying to solve. We’re a long way from that point – but we’re also better positioned than ever before to get there.


Ben Wrobel and Meg Massey are authors of the book Letting Go: How Philanthropists and Impact Investors Can Do The Most Good by Giving Up Control