Democratizing Grantmaking

Chris Allan cropped

Democratizing Grantmaking

By Chris Allan

It’s hard to think of a sector with less accountability built in than philanthropy. So it’s up to us in the field itself to make sure that grantmakers are open and responsive to the folks we’re trying to help.

I’ve just come from the annual EDGE Funders Alliance meeting, which devoted huge amounts of time to figuring out how to democratize grantmaking. To me these conversations respond not only from the ethical principle of breaking down the barriers of privilege, but also from the practical idea that our action is more effective when we’re working together toward common goals. Funders, grantees, support organizations, everyone. For too long now it’s been OK for grantmakers to set ourselves apart from the movements we fund, holding ourselves above the fray. It’s no longer good enough to believe that we become smarter and better looking the day we take a job with an organization that has money to give away. Not if we really want to work on the wicked problems that are so thorny.

Here is just a sampling of the great ideas that came out of those conversations.

Make grantees part of the process

Not many people know more about the problems you’re working on than the organizations active in the movement. No one has the whole picture, but the people doing the work are going to be the ones up on latest developments, who’s doing great things, and who’s just along for the ride. Bringing these folks into the grantmaking process can strengthen the whole thing. There are lots of ways to do this – as board members, decision makers on grantmaking, strategic planners, creators of theories of change – anything that brings their perspective into what needs to be done. It is important to deal with the power imbalance in grantmaking by creating systems and procedures that force us to open up the system, beyond just being nice about it.

But aren’t they just going to push their self-interest, you say? Probably yes – and that’s just what you want. Movement leaders are going to push their perspectives about what needs to be done, and try to direct resources to the people they see as most effective. In the social sector the most important asset people have is their reputation, and few will want to torpedo their ability to work in the field by playing fast and loose with something as important as money for the movement. This creates a confluence of interest, not a conflict of interest. And as a grantmaker it’s still your job to digest the variety of opinions and perspectives that come in – just do it with the best informed people in the field in an open way, rather than with a disconnected board behind closed doors.

See yourself as part of the movement you’re funding

When you talk to movement leaders, fundraising is often the most maddening part of the job. The people who run organizations know how to do many things and how to solve many problems, but when funders are aloof, don’t communicate, and make random turns and decisions, that is beyond the control of movement leaders. So become part of the movement, instead of walling yourself off. Make decisions with these leaders, whether it’s a change in strategy, a change in procedures, or choosing new board members. After all, if grantees succeed, you want that to be your success too. And if they fail, you need to see that as your failure too, and learn together from it.

Be transparent

Being a funder means everyone wants a piece of you. The phone calls and emails can be incessant, everyone wants to talk to you at conferences, and you can never tell what to believe from what you hear. Unfortunately, many of us react to that by hiding behind opaque procedures, making our organizations mysterious. This raises the costs for the whole movement through time wasted by grantees looking for funding in unlikely places, and donors fending off potential grantees who really don’t fall into your set criteria.

So return phone calls. Answer emails. Answer honestly when people talk to you. These are parts of the costs of doing business of grantmaking. While these conversations can be hard, at the end they are in the best interests of the movement you are supporting. And stronger movements are what we’re after, right?

Seek grantee feedback

Are you that grantmaker that has a reputation for not playing well with others? For being hard to figure out? Like when you have bad breath, no one is ever going tell you that. So grantmakers need to make use of the outside groups that can confidentially ask your grantees – and non-grantees, hopefully – what you’re doing right, and what needs to be fixed. The Grantee Experience and Insight Review and the Grantee Perception Report are the two best known. Do the confidential surveys, learn from them, and adjust accordingly.

Understand privilege

We all recognize the power dynamics that come with having money vs. asking for it. But how to deal with the power imbalance? Above I talked about having concrete systems and procedures that balance things out a bit. But we can go beyond that, and help our organizations understand how privilege works. There are great training programs for leaders and grantmakers that can go deep into these areas, so we understand the importance of opening up a very closed and elite system.

Opening Up Grantmaking

Bringing grantmakers into the movements we support is key to solving difficult problems. There is lots of experience in doing this – the Global Greengrants Fund and the Needmor Fund in the United States, Mama Cash in the Netherlands, Fundación Acción Solidaria in Mexico, and many others have shown that it is both possible and worth it to open up grantmaking beyond a privileged elite. And necessary, if we really want to make a difference.

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