Participatory Grant Making: Has its Time Come?

Paper by Cynthia Gibson for the Ford Foundation: “…During the past decade, all sectors of society have faced heightened demand for greater accountability and transparency. People have become more distrustful of established institutions, they are demanding more information about issues and decisions afecting them and their families and communities, and they want more voice in decision-making processes. Technological innovation also has created new possibilities — and new pressures — for organizations and institutions to become more democratic by involving the public in their work.

Philanthropy is not immune from these trends. While for decades, philanthropy was seen as endowed foundations set up by the rich, recent years have seen a surge in crowdfunding, giving circles, donor-advised funds, and a panoply of digital giving platforms that allow anyone to be a philanthropist. Alongside these, traditions of giving from within communities that existed long before philanthropy became professionalized have become more prominent.

Philanthropy and other felds also are being reshaped by the attitudes and capacities of a new generation of young people who have grown up with the Internet and embrace its culture of transparency and bottom-up action. Additionally, there is a growing awareness that many public challenges are exceedingly complex and won’t respond to one-shot solutions from experts or institutions working on their own.

These and other trends refect a backlash against the “establishment” occurring in politics, higher education, the media, and other felds in which elite interests are perceived to have drowned out the concerns of ordinary people. Americans of all stripes and political persuasions have come to believe they have little say in guiding public decisions and improving the health and well-being of their communities..

This paper assesses the embrace of participatory approaches to date by philanthropy and other felds. In assessing philanthropy’s record, the paper fnds examples of individual foundations and networks of funders that are experimenting with participatory approaches. It also, however, fnds that there is a great deal of talk about participation in the feld but comparatively little commitment to integrating these practices into foundations’ strategies and activities, and especially their cultures, over the long term…(More)”.