Kirsty Marrins: Why participatory grant-making is the future of funding

It shifts power by involving residents in decisions about how money is spent in their communities

If you work for a charity that relies on grants for core funding or to support your services, chances are you have never received a grant from a participatory grant-maker. 

This is because participatory grant-making is not traditional grant-making. It seeks to make grant-making more democratised by placing grant decisions in the hands of communities.

It’s an approach to grant-making that matters because the biggest challenges that society faces today are wide-ranging and complex. 

From climate change and climate injustice to food instability and poverty, the people who typically have the biggest say in decisions about societal issues are often not directly impacted.

And those who are best placed to decide on what their community needs the most – people with lived experience – are often excluded from the grant-making process. 

Shifting funding power to communities helps people see that they are part of a network where change, even if subtle, can be mighty.

And as well as being a more equitable way of funding, participatory grant-making is also the least wasteful, as money goes directly towards what the community actually needs, not a funder or a charity’s perception of what it needs. 

Dismantling traditional funding

Last year, the charitable foundation Lankelly Chase announced that it was “so entangled with colonial capitalism that it inevitably continues the harms of the past into the present”. 

The funder took the bold decision to “dismantle and close”, planning to distribute its £134m endowment fund to organisations working in social justice over the next five years. 

The decision is one that Natasha Friend, director at the participatory grant-maker Camden Giving, thinks is aspirational. 

“Its a positive step for foundations to be seeking to spend down endowments," she says. "We should be seeking a future where vast amounts of money, held by small numbers of people, is no longer the norm. 

“The idea of legacies for wealthy individuals via large foundations is outdated. The wealthy shouldn’t have such influence over the way that civil society works, long after they have died.”

Inclusive decision-making

People who are affected by spending decisions should have a say in how money is spent in their community, and to be truly inclusive those people need to be paid for their time. 

Camden Giving recruits, supports and pays for 50 people within the community each year to decide how grants are awarded in Camden.

Those 50 people form groups of between eight and 12, who look at priorities within the community, review applications, visit grantees and ultimately decide who receives funding. 

At least half of those who sit on community panels are under 25 years of age and about 70 per cent of the panels are made up of people from the global majority. 

Friend says that participatory grant-making has supported an increased sense of citizenship in Camden, with one 16-year-old who sat on a Camden Giving community panel going on to campaign for and successfully secure free school meals for those in need. 

“Moving money to community power means that individuals see themselves as part of a connected network where they can make change,” says Friend, “rather than waiting for big funders to come and solve issues.” 

Experimenting with philanthropy

A key challenge is that there are currently not enough participatory grant-makers or similar models in communities around the UK that can accept large amounts of money to be spent at speed.

This presents an obstacle for Lankelly Chase and other foundations seeking to spend down their endowments.

“Foundations such as Bristol Food Fund, Barking and Dagenham Giving, Plymouth Octopus – as well as Camden Giving – have demonstrated more democratic ways for money to be distributed for change,” says Friend.

“By spending down its endowment Lankelly is uniquely placed to support the growth of a participatory infrastructure in the UK and redistribute power to the people.”

The think tank New Philanthropy Capital agrees that philanthropy should be powered by multiple perspectives, as well as an openness to challenge and change. 

With charities inevitably responding to the interests of philanthropists rather than the needs of those who use their services when applying for grants, the organisation has developed the Open Philanthropy programme to explore and evaluate new and different approaches to philanthropy and ultimately provide a practical blueprint for action by anyone who engages in philanthropy. 

Ultimately, understanding that communities – or people who use charity services – need to be involved in decisions about how funding is spent, using mechanisms like participatory grant-making, is key to a brighter future for funding. One that is democratic, fair and equitable. 

Kirsty Marrins is a digital communications consultant and CharityComms trustee 


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