More than a decade ago, a set of smart technologists predicted that social change would spring directly from the crowd, rather than managed by formal organizations controlling what gets done and by whom. How right they were. Today, technology is giving people access to systems and institutions that allow them to connect, communicate, and engage in collective action in ways that were previously unimaginable.

Journalism’s transformation is one of the best examples of this phenomenon. For decades, newspapers relied on journalists and editors to decide what was published. Those gatekeepers became less important in the face of sophisticated web-based tools that allowed ordinary people to create and distribute news on their own. Rather than acknowledge this as a new communications ecosystem of which they no longer controlled, the news industry dismissed it—and it cost them. Today, that industry is scrambling to find sustainable business models to replace one that relied on paid subscriptions and ad revenue.

Auspiciously, that’s changing as journalism embraces more participatory and public-facing approaches that are not only more cost-efficient but have led to an explosion of innovative news outlets, as well as opportunities for ordinary citizens to get involved in the democratic practice on which a free press is built. Citizen journalism—through which people formerly known as the audience—use new media technology, cellphones, and other tools to inform one another is one such approach. Collaborative journalism brings together professionals and the public to work on news stories through wikis, personal blogs, and other platforms that allow constant iteration and updates. More recently, organizations like Hearken are being used by news organizations around the world to meaningfully engage the public as a story develops from pitch to publication— otherwise known as “public-powered journalism.”

Other fields are undergoing similar upheavals, one of which is philanthropy. For decades, philanthropy was seen as endowed foundations set up by the rich, but in recent years, that’s changed with crowdfunding, giving circles, donor-advised funds, and a panoply of digital giving platforms that allow anyone to be a philanthropist.

Institutional philanthropy, however, has been somewhat late to the party. While foundations have long supported the kind of participation that’s at the core of community organizing, deliberative democracy, and community development, they’ve been reluctant to embrace it in their own efforts.

Until recently. Faced with growing public critique, funders are taking a closer look at how they can be more accountable and transparent. Field-wise, conversations about equity, diversity, community engagement, and inclusivity have snowballed.

Some funders are doing more than talking: They’re creating innovative approaches to philanthropy that are upending how resources are allocated, by whom, and to what end. They’re moving away from independently deciding what gets done to working with non-grantmakers—or “peers”—to set priorities, develop strategies, govern, and evaluate.

All of these are important components of a participatory approach to philanthropy, and all can be—and are being—used by funders at different points in their process. What hasn’t been as prevalent is participatory grantmaking, which draws on broader participatory philanthropy approaches but zeroes in on how funding decisions get made. Why? Because money is power, and power dynamics are ubiquitous in philanthropy.

Just like collaborative journalism approaches, participatory grantmakers not only acknowledge and talk about power; they break down barriers that keep people powerless through an approach that realigns incentives, cedes control, and upends entrenched hierarchies around funding decisions. To practitioners, participatory grantmaking isn’t a tactic or one-off strategy; it’s a power-shifting ethos that cuts across every aspect of the institution’s activities, policies, programs, and behaviors.

Interviews with more than 30 participatory grantmakers around the world underscore why this approach needs to be taken seriously. First, these funders have found that involving people with lived experience in the grantmaking process leads to better grant decisions and outcomes.

Second, the process itself increases participants’ sense of agency and leadership. For these reasons, participatory grantmakers believe funders who aren’t using participatory approaches may actually be impeding the impact they say they want to see.

Still, participatory grantmaking is a tough sell to a field that’s long struggled with power issues. And, to be sure, some funders, especially large institutions, have more entrenched bureaucracies that make it challenging to dive into participatory grantmaking head first. It’s also hard to determine who exactly their constituencies are.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle is a misperception that authentic participatory engagement requires an all-or-nothing approach. That leads to participatory grantmaking being dismissed by funders as “something we’ll never be able to do.”

Some funders who want to experiment with participatory approaches say they’re hesitant because they’re not sure what the “rules” are. One of the beautiful things about participatory work is that because it’s inherently iterative and relational, there is no “right way” to do it. So, while there is general consensus about the values that drive participatory grantmaking, there’s considerable variation in how it’s practiced.

Some participatory funds, for example, are completely peer-led in that everyone making funding decisions is a member of the population or community the fund supports and does not include any paid staff or trustees from the foundation itself. Other funds are peer-led when it comes to grantmaking, but donors and staff play a role in other parts of the process like providing grants management support. Still others involve both peers and donors in reviewing, selecting, and making grant decisions.

Even funders who may not be able to immediately (or perhaps ever) hand over decisions about grantmaking have several options for incorporating meaningful participation in their work before, during, and after those decisions are made. They can engage non-grantmakers in identifying issue priorities, developing strategies, sitting on advisory councils/boards, engaging in research and evaluation, conducting site visits and reviewing proposals. They can test the approach in one or two program areas.

Internally, they can institute hiring policies that favor participatory experience; encourage staff to collaborate across programs; involve staff from all ranks in policy discussions; and stipulate a number of board seats for peers. And they can support field-building through research and evaluation about the approach.

Some funders see feedback and listening as indicators of participatory practice. Others believe that while these are important and necessary components of participatory philanthropy, they’re insufficient to breaking down power imbalances because the people asking for feedback can still choose whether to use it in making decisions about issues affecting the lives of the people providing it. This, they say, ends up looping back to the top-down, expert-driven system that’s been the hallmark of institutional philanthropy.

The good news is that some much-needed cracks in this system are starting to appear. The question is whether institutional philanthropy will follow other fields that are embracing participatory approaches because they understand that innovative ideas about resolving hard issues aren’t going to come from solely from experts but in partnership with people who can bring their lived experience to bear in important decision-making about their lives, communities, and futures.

For a field whose sole purpose is the betterment of humankind, participatory grantmaking seems to be an approach that philanthropy not only should get behind but, ultimately, get in front of to lead the way for others. Will philanthropy step up? Let’s hope it doesn’t take another decade.

By Cynthia Gibson, philanthropic consultant

This essay appears in Global Media Philanthropy: What Funders Need to Know About Data, Trends
and Pressing Issues Facing the Field. With so many pressing issues affecting the media funding space as well as specific regional considerations around grantmaking strategies and priorities, Media Impact Funders turned to experts from the field and asked them to share insights across a range of media issues. Listening to those working on the ground is essential for understanding challenges and opportunities in a global context, and these essays offer critical insights that funders need to understand in the global media ecosystem. Opinions offered by essay authors are their own.

About the Author

Cynthia Gibson

Philanthropic consultant