A growing number of foundations are experimenting with new approaches focused on engaging stakeholders who are most affected by their decisions and activities, a report commissioned by the Ford Foundation finds.
Written by Cynthia Gibson, the report, Participatory Grantmaking: Has Its Time Come? (51 pages, PDF), found that foundations are facing "heightened demand for accountability and transparency" as well as calls for greater public participation in their work and decision-making processes. As a result, a growing number of foundations and funder networks are experimenting with participatory practices, although, Gibson notes, there is as yet "comparatively little commitment to integrating these practices into foundations' strategies and activities, and especially their cultures, over the long term."
According to the report, "the fields of community organizing, community development, and deliberative democracy are responsible for the bulk of theory and research" about public engagement and participatory practices. Over the last twenty years or so, the Mott, Casey, Hewlett, and Knight foundations, and more recently the NoVo Foundation, as well as the nearly fifty community foundations in the CFLeads network have integrated participatory elements into their programmatic work. But barriers to the broader adoption of participatory grantmaking still exist, including the power imbalances, institutional priorities, legal restrictions, and potential conflicts of interest inherent in private foundation grantmaking; the need for a cultural transformation across the entire organization; the difficulty of applying participatory practices to impact investing and complex financing structures; and a lack of consensus around the definition of, measurements for, and evidence base with respect to the effectiveness of participatory grantmaking.
The report argues that to realize the benefits of such practices, foundations must balance the fairness of involving those who are likely to be most affected by the outcomes with the knowledge of those best positioned to drive better decisions. To that end, the report proposes a framework that calls for grantmakers to inform, consult with, and involve stakeholders in a dialogue before, during, and after grant decisions are made.
"While participatory grantmakers understand these challenges, they also believe the challenges can be overcome by starting with small steps like integrating a participatory approach into a few program areas or strategy design," the report concludes. "Proponents of these approaches caution, however, that without a clear sense of why foundations are undertaking them, they can quickly dissolve into a one-off or a 'nice thing to do,' rather than an ethos embedded in the values, practices, policies, and behaviors of both funders and grantees."