Funding story: Participatory grant making

An approach to grant making that gives communities a greater say in decisions about funding is taking off.

Participatory grant making, a local government process that involves communities in decisions about how public money is spent, was very much a fringe activity until last year. Only a few councils and voluntary sector organisations were pioneering it.

But it became headline news last July, when Hazel Blears, at the time a minister without portfolio at the Cabinet Office, announced 10 pilots as part of a plan to make participatory grant making common local authority practice within five years.

Mark Waters, coordinator of the Participatory Budgeting Unit, which has pioneered the approach and will be steering the expansion, points out that it hasn't been the overnight sensation it might appear.

"We've worked hard at this," he says. "We've had a national reference group for the past three years with people from different departments, and we've continually been trying to feed this in at policy level to the Treasury and the Audit Commission. If an approach is going to become mainstream, it has to be owned by someone at national government level.

"The national reference group has been made up of champions - people who have seen the vision and felt it was worth spending the time and taking a risk to make something happen."

Given the overlap between the public and voluntary sectors at community level, there may be a direct knock-on effect for charitable funders. Toby Blume, chief executive of Urban Forum, an umbrella body for voluntary groups and one of the first national third sector organisations to use participatory grant making, believes this is an approach "whose time has come". He says: "Our experience has reinforced our belief that people will find their own solutions."

He adds that the voluntary sector has not engaged with user involvement as fully as it should have. "There is a need within the sector to enhance accountability to beneficiaries," he says. "Participatory budgeting and grant making is a way of ensuring that they have a say in what we do.

"We do have to be honest - we don't always engage those we serve as well as we might, but if we improve our accountability and our links to beneficiaries, it will strengthen our legitimacy to engage with the public sector."

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