The Power of Letting Go: A Conversation on Participatory Grantmaking
An Interview with Meg Massey and Ben Wrobel, authors of Letting Go: How Philanthropists and Impact Investors Can Do More Good by Giving Up Control
To get us started, why did you decide to write Letting Go?
Ben Wrobel, Letting Go Co-Author: I work at a nonprofit called Village Capital, where we have an affiliated venture capital fund that makes investments in tech companies in a more equitable and participatory way. And about two and a half years ago, I set out to figure out who else is doing this, and came across this enormous world of participatory grantmaking, which, of course, is in the philanthropic space, but essentially follows the same principles.
Meg Massey, Letting Go Co-Author: Ben and I met a couple years ago, and really got to talking about this at a conference in the fall of 2019. I've worked in impact investing for about 10 years now, and as Ben said, we started looking at who else was doing a participatory model on the investing side, but very quickly found the participatory grantmaking space on the philanthropy side. This is also right around the time the pandemic was starting, so we really dove into this project. The book was published in April 2021, and you can get it at LettingGoBook.org.
How have you come to define participatory grantmaking? Who are the participants in the process?
Ben: So first, just the broadest definition of participatory funding, which we define as either grantmaking or investing, is a funding process that cedes decision-making power to communities and people with lived experience of the problem at hand. So how do you define community? For place-based foundations like Brooklyn Community Foundation, the community can be a representative sample of people living in that geography. When you don't have a geographic community, an example we focus on in the book is The Disability Rights Fund, which was created as a participatory grantmaking fund designed to support disability rights advocacy. 50% of their decision-making committee is people with disabilities, and every single year they get nominations from an umbrella organization, to have a rotating cast of activists from around the world working on disability rights.
Meg: In terms of the process itself, across both philanthropy and investing, we identified three major decision points where community voice can be incorporated. It's really important to make that distinction between asking a community for their input, versus actually giving them a decision that they are in charge of making—whether their input comes with teeth. So the first decision point is in setting of mission and priorities, similar to what Brooklyn Community Foundation did with the original Brooklyn Insights process years ago.
The second stage is what we call "Building a Pipeline," which is identifying potential grantees and setting the criteria for selection. It's a known challenge that high profile nonprofits have the most resources at their disposal to solicit funding from donors. And that often leads to smaller nonprofits getting ignored, which are disproportionately led by people of color and other marginalized groups. So we talked about some strategies for making sure that those organizations that are doing really great work, but aren't necessarily on the radar of major donors, are able to be included in the process. Engaging the community in that part, to set the criteria, can be a really good way to make that happen.
The final stage is "Voting and Vetting." This is the actual decision as to who gets funding. There are a few different ways this can be structured. It might be that the community looks through applications and comes up with a slate of finalists that they then share with a grantmaking committee, it could mean that they have seats on a grantmaking committee, or that they make up the entire grantmaking committee. But the goal is that the community members have a vote, they have a voice. And that it comes with teeth.
There are a lot of important questions rightly being raised around philanthropy and how we need to do things differently. Why is participatory grantmaking emerging as a much-needed solution?
Meg: What we were finding, both before we started writing the book, and then especially as 2020 unfolded, was that this question of who has power and who decides is really at the nexus of a lot of different reckonings happening right now. There's obviously, in the U.S., the question of how to avoid a kind of a white savior complex in philanthropy and how to be intentional about engaging communities, not as recipients, but as partners. We talk in the book about the difference between diversity and accountability. Black Lives Matter forced a lot of foundations to acknowledge that they have mostly white people on staff and they need to change that, which is important. But asking your Black staff members to represent all Black people is also not the solution. Participatory grantmaking is a way to ensure that, rather than placing that pressure on certain members of staff, the decision is integrating the members of the community who haven't historically been represented. This is also a big part of having a really effective approach to racial justice.
In the history of participatory grantmaking, there's a huge tradition of this kind of shared funding participation in a lot of indigenous practices, from West Africa, and in the Caribbean. But our focus in the book is on modern philanthropy, looking at the 1970s onward. And what we saw with those early funds, is that they were successful in terms of putting social justice on the radar of major philanthropies, but they were less successful in getting them to actually change their funding practices. And now we see some of these bigger name foundations really starting to have a conversation, starting to shift some of their practices in a way that they weren't before.
Ben: In the book we talk about the two big arguments for participatory grantmaking are the equity argument, and the efficacy argument: that maybe when you bring in more voices, it works better? Of course, that's a big question. But there is this really interesting data from the world of participatory budgeting, which is when governments open up a certain piece of the budget to get directly voted on by community members. In the city of Porto Alegre in Brazil, back in the 1980s, there was a decade-long experiment with participatory budgeting. Social scientists have found that poverty rates went down, infant mortality went down, sewer systems were built—all these basic metrics of development were turbocharged when community members felt like they had a voice in the process. So there's a ton of research being done right now looking at if participatory grantmaking works and where it can work best.
And what does it look like, operationally, for this shift to happen at foundations?
Ben: I think that there has been an uptick in the past decade, especially, of business schools being a feeder for philanthropy. There has been this sort of corporatization of philanthropy, where the skills that are valued are analytical, sitting in a room with a computer, trying to figure out what is the best use for our money. And by no means are we suggesting that that should be thrown out, but what we've seen from foundations like Mama Cash, which is an Amsterdam-based foundation that has gone fully participatory after running a pilot, is that they end up retraining and ultimately hiring for more facilitation skills. And that’s a different skill set, that is empathy. On a very tactical level, that is people who have experience working with the community.
How have you seen the process affect the power dynamic between a funder and the grantee?
Meg: I think it changes the conversation into putting the grantmaker into a more facilitator role working with the community. I also think that this gets at some really important questions about how impact is measured and how programs are evaluated, like making sure that those community members are also part of defining what success looks like, and the grantee organization also has that shared definition of success. We found that it creates a real team-like atmosphere, when everyone has the same north star and is working towards that same goal. Some of the studies done to date are showing that having that level of ownership over the outcome of a particular program, on balance, leads to better outcomes. But it's not easy to share power, and that's true in any context. So I think you can certainly see those growing pains in a lot of foundations as they transition to this type of work with their grantees. But everyone that we spoke with for the book says it was worth it, because everyone was so invested. and that showed in the outcomes that the programs were getting.
Over the past year, Brooklyn Community Foundation fully transitioned to having community advisory councils for all of our unrestricted grant programs, which amounts to around $5 million a year distributed through participatory grantmaking approaches. Where do you see our work fitting in the movement at large, especially among other community foundations?
Meg: Where I see Brooklyn Community Foundation being on the cutting edge, in terms of community foundations, is bringing the participatory process beyond a single program. A lot of the foundations we looked at had a single program that they were doing in a participatory way. And that makes sense to start there, especially if you have a lot of different grantmaking programs. Having that gradual transition is important. But the fact that you have taken that step to putting it across all of your different models is huge. One of the grantmaking experts that we spoke with basically said, if participatory grantmaking is truly working, then it's not just changing a single program, it's changing your whole operating philosophy. Doing participation in a vacuum isn't how it's supposed to be done. It's about a cultural shift. The fact that this is part of your DNA from Brooklyn Insights, and now it’s across all of your programs, that's a really important trajectory. And a lot of the other foundations that we spoke with are still a lot earlier on in that journey.
Pictured Above: Brooklyn Community Foundation participatory grantmaking session in Crown Heights, Fall 2016