The Historical Case for Participatory Grantmaking

Editors’ Note: Cynthia Gibson, one of the leading experts on participatory philanthropy, explains why funders who question whether a participatory approach is consistent with philanthropic practice might want to consult the sector’s past. The material in this post is adapted from a number of sources, including Cynthia Gibson, Participatory Grantmaking: Has Its Time Come? (New York: Ford Foundation, 2017), and Cynthia Gibson, Deciding Together: Shifting Power and Resources Through Participatory Grantmaking, ed. Jen Bokoff (New York: Candid, 2018).

Mention “participatory grantmaking” in philanthropic circles and reactions range from curiosity to categorical dismissal as something “funders will just never do.” They may, however, want to brush up on their history. While its prevalence may have waxed and waned over time, participation has always been part of philanthropy as a value, ethos, and practice.

There are signs that those waning days may be ending as participation becomes the new norm—not only in philanthropy but across society. Today, people are demanding more accountability and transparency from established institutions, including foundations. They want more information about and voice in the issues and decision-making processes affecting them. Technological innovation also has created new possibilities and pressures for organizations and institutions to become more democratic by involving the public in their work.

Philanthropy and other fields 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. They, like many others, believe that public challenges are too complex for experts or institutions alone to resolve; instead, they require partnerships with people who can bring their lived experience to bear in making important decisions about their lives, communities, and futures.

Recognizing these trends, a small but growing group of funders are starting to use participatory approaches in their grantmaking, upending how resources are allocated, by whom, and to what end.

They’re inviting non-grantmakers to help set priorities, develop strategies, sit on foundations’ boards or advisory committees, and conduct research. All of these are important components of a participatory approach to philanthropy, and all can be—and are being—used by these institutions at different points in their process.

What hasn’t been as prevalent is participatory grantmaking. While some see this as one of many types of participatory philanthropy, others see it as a distinct category because it moves decision making about money to the people most affected by the issues donors are trying to address.

Participatory grantmakers believe the reason for this is a reluctance to share or cede power and that the best way to deal with this problem is to start breaking down the barriers that exclude people affected by problems from important decision-making processes, including grantmaking. This, they say, helps to realign incentives, balance power dynamics, share control, and potentially improve funding decisions and outcomes. Above all, participatory grantmaking is a values system that sees participation as an ethos—not a one-off tactic—that cuts across everything an organization does. Those values include transparency, equity, inclusion, and power.

In short, participatory grantmakers believe that participatory grantmaking is the “right thing to do.”

The values-based argument, however, may not be sufficient to persuade a large swath of funders that participatory grantmaking has merit. Some will want more data that shows its value and outcomes, while others will be swayed more by peer pressure.

But there’s another strategy for persuading skeptics about participatory grantmaking’s potential: Reminding them that philanthropy has a long history with—and is rooted in—participatory values and practice.

Two historical strands are particularly noteworthy. First, philanthropic institutions and donors have provided millions of dollars to organizations in other fields that have participatory practice and its power-sharing ethos at their core. Second, a considerable amount of the institutional and community philanthropy that’s practiced today has deep roots in participatory values, mission and practice.

Participatory Practice Has Deep Roots in Other Fields

While there has been more interest in participatory approaches in philanthropy, the construct is hardly new. For decades, these approaches have been central to fields such as community organizing, deliberative democracy, public health, community psychology, participatory budgeting, and community development.

Community organizing mobilizes ordinary people—especially disenfranchised populations—to advocate for their interests in the decision-making processes that affect them. Organizing work is based on the belief that community participation leads to more informed, meaningful and long-term social change. Philanthropy has supported hundreds of locally-based organizing initiatives, as well as larger, movement-building organizations such as the Industrial Areas Foundation, PICO, Direct Action and Research Training Center, and Center for Community Change. There are also funder networks that support organizing such as Neighborhood Funders Group, Grassroots Grantmakers, and the EDGE Funders Alliance.

Deliberative democracy or governance engages local communities in public decision making based on a belief that democracy and governance work best when people directly affected by issues are actively involved in finding ways to address issues they see as priorities. Deliberative practitioners try to be as open-ended as possible, inviting people who represent a range of views and providing them with balanced information to guide their discussions and, ultimately, to make decisions. Philanthropy has supported organizations such as Public Agenda, Everyday Democracy, Deliberative Democracy Consortium, and the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation.

Community development is a process through which communities and groups engage in collective action aimed at identifying needs and assets and shaping solutions within the context of larger social institutions. The most institutionalized forms of community development are Community Development Corporations (CDCs), which are supported by both philanthropic and federal funding. Philanthropic support has also been provided to organizations such as NeighborWorks America, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and Enterprise Community Partners, all of which have networks of affiliated local nonprofit organizations that provide financing for community development efforts in urban and rural communities.

More recently, philanthropic support has helped strengthen other fields that are inviting the public to be more actively involved in their work. Public health has a long history of involving communities in developing solutions to problems or issues affecting them based on a belief that “collective intelligence” leads to better results. The news industry is being transformed by civic or public journalism that gives people the chance to report on what’s happening in their communities. In higher education, research and learning are becoming more participatory through service learning, action research, and “town and gown” dialogues. Participatory budgeting is giving residents of cities, districts and other locales the chance to decide how public budgets should be spent.

While each domain is unique in its participatory approaches, they all point to a remarkably similar set of key principles and practices to be most effective in getting results.  Among these are:

  • Involve the people most affected by issues in decision-making about addressing them.
  • Engage, rather than inform, people by using multidirectional communication.
  • The equitable participation of diverse people, voices, ideas, and information can lead to better outcomes and decisions.
  • Experts/professionals are partners with the public in problem solving—not necessarily the drivers.
  • Transparency about decision-making processes—who is involved, what decisions are made, and how they will be implemented—is essential.

Not coincidentally, these are the same principles and practices that guide participatory grantmaking. Indeed, rather than starting from scratch as to “what works” in terms of participatory approaches, funders interested in engaging in participatory philanthropy can feel confident that years of experience across other fields have turned up similar lessons again and again. For funders who are skeptical about participatory grantmaking—but have supported participatory efforts in other fields—awareness of this history can be an opportunity to examine why there’s reluctance to apply these approaches to their own work.

Philanthropy Itself Has Deep Participatory Roots[i]

Participation may seem a relatively new focus for philanthropy, but its history indicates otherwise. Long before it became a professionalized field, philanthropy took the form of mutual aid, collective giving, tithing, and other forms of community-minded generosity. Communities of color have particularly rich traditions of giving on which to draw, often forged out of necessity when the larger society actively sought to discourage their collective action. Participatory processes evolved as organized philanthropy grew in its scale, ambitions and reach.

One of the dominant historical lines of participatory philanthropy can be traced to the 1970s, during which time there was a growth in the number of philanthropic institutions and networks using more inclusive approaches that aligned with their interest in advancing economic equality, racial equity, civil and human rights. The Funding Exchange, for example, was a national network of social justice foundations founded in 1979 by young activists of inherited wealth. With a “change, not charity” vision, founding members pioneered what they saw as a new approach to philanthropy that would transform its power dynamics by involving community activists in grantmaking decisions—one that is still used by the network’s 16 members.

While this kind of participatory grantmaking was still far outside the norm, the participatory values embedded in the era’s social justice zeitgeist during the 1970s led to an outbreak of new philanthropic organizations and networks dedicated to those values. Among these were the Ms. Foundation for Women, National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Funders for LGBTQ Issues, and the Tides Foundation.

In the early 1990s, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation’s Community Foundations and Neighborhood Small Grants Program gave rise to Grassroots Grantmakers, a network of place-based funders in the United States and Canada that involves non-grantmakers in their activities, including grantmaking. In 1999, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Making Connections anti-poverty initiative emphasized resident voice in strategy development and included a resident-led grantmaking component. Between 1996 and 2006, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation invested more than $20 million in the Neighborhood Improvement Initiative (NII), which used a resident-driven planning and implementation process in partnership with local community foundations to strengthen communities’ capacity for long-term social change.

One of the first attempts by a national foundation to undertake a national participatory grantmaking initiative was in 2007, when the Case Foundation created and launched Make it Your Own (MIYO), a grants program in which the foundation invited the public to participate in every step of the grantmaking process—including setting grant guidelines, serving as proposal reviewers, and voting on which proposals should receive grants.

Also in 2007, the Knight Foundation added a public participation component to its then-nascent News Challenge, which invited the public to submit innovative ideas for gathering local news and information, as well as to comment on them.  Knight’s other participatory initiatives include the Knight Cities Challenge and the Knight Arts Challenge, through which people in cities where the foundation makes grants propose and comment on ideas and projects.

Since then, there’s been a slow but palpable upsurge in the number of funders experimenting with these and similar approaches. The Wikimedia Foundation has been integrating community input about proposals and awards by using the same kind of public platform used for its Wikipedia articles. The NoVo Foundation undertook a year-long listening tour with girls of color, movement leaders, and organizers to develop a multi-million dollar grantmaking strategy. Others include the Disability Rights Fund, New York Women’s Foundation, Edge Fund, Durfee Foundation, and YouthBank International.

Community Foundations[ii]

It’s possible to trace the emergence of participatory funding back beyond the surge in the 1970s to the rise of community foundations at the turn of the last century. In 1914, the nation’s first community foundation in Cleveland was created with a dual mission: to pool donor resources and to use them to directly benefit the community. That dual mission was also reflected in the foundation’s governance: banks managed the funds, and a local citizen board distributed them.

Programs were shaped by community-wide surveys that the foundation used to identify the most pronounced community needs. These first attempts at community mapping were intended to help residents initiate advocacy for reform—a function that, at the time, was relatively unheard of among foundations.

From 1914 to 1929, this community problem-solving model quickly spread across the country until the Great Depression hampered community foundations’ ability to preserve their financial resources. That prompted a shift within community foundations to fundraising and asset building—a focus that drove the institution’s subsequent growth and financial largesse.

The tide turned, however, with the social unrest and growth of the civil rights movement, which led community foundations to direct more funding for community action and social change. Not all were persuaded, however, particularly those who saw community foundations’ primary function as collecting and leveraging local donors’ charity contributions.

During the late 1970s and 1980s, community foundations continued to grow, moving beyond urban centers to other communities, including those in more rural areas. A significant part of this growth was spurred by large private foundations such as Charles Stewart Mott and Ford, which saw these as natural vehicles for engaging communities in identifying priorities and addressing them in partnership with philanthropic organizations. There was also a shift in the political culture, including cutbacks in government spending for community development and social services—gaps that community foundations seemed positioned to address.

During the economic boom of the 1990s, community foundations grew rapidly, but so did other forms of philanthropy. The most significant was the emergence of private financial investment firms offering philanthropic advising and services to their customers—a trend that threatened to eclipse community foundations’ traditional role as local philanthropic brokers.

Concerned that competition from commercial funds would siphon off donors, many community foundations shifted their focus from community engagement to building their asset base and seeing this as a proxy for impact. Not all were on board, however, which led to the establishment of CFLeads, a network of community foundations established in 2007 to expand community foundations’ role from asset builders and grantmakers to “community leadership”—an approach that encouraged community foundations to explore deeper partnerships with communities to address critical issues.

In 2012, CFLeads launched the Cultivating Community Engagement Project (CCE), which included a 34-member panel comprising individuals from philanthropy, academia, government, and neighborhood and community organizations who issued a manifesto calling on community foundations to deepen their commitment to community engagement by directly engaging with residents as equal partners in change efforts. In addition to developing resources to help community foundations do this, CFLeads also produced one of the few codified frameworks for participatory approaches to philanthropy.


Participatory approaches are gaining in popularity because the world is changing in ways that are forcing organizations—including those in philanthropy—to think and operate differently. Those changes include an emphasis on transparency, inclusiveness, and collaboration, as well as an understanding that innovative approaches to resolving increasingly thorny issues aren’t going to come solely from the top but in partnership with people who can bring their lived experience to bear in making important decisions about their lives, communities, and futures.

While philanthropy has been behind the curve when it comes to fully embracing a more systematic approach to participation, it’s slowly coming around with more and more funders expressing interest in how they can involve outsiders in various aspects of the grantmaking process. That doesn’t mean most funders are ready to fully fly the participatory flag. There are major hurdles to overcome if the field is to embrace participatory approaches as more than a tactic or “one-off,” but rather, an ethos that is marbled through everything the institution does and how it operates. That’s not easy for a field that has long been entranced by “the new,” as well as a tendency to assume that what’s new has never been done before because philanthropy hadn’t discovered it.

But there are other reasons this field has moved more slowly than others, besides an oft-mentioned desire to hold on to power and control. Legacy foundations, for example, tend to have more formalized policies and/or structures that don’t lend themselves (at least initially) to participatory approaches. Also, their grantmaking is often more focused on large organizations, which leaves them a step removed from the communities they serve and, thus, with seemingly fewer opportunities to engage in participatory processes.

There are also legitimate concerns about conflicts of interest, cost, and donor intent. Family foundations may be able to incorporate some participation by outsiders in proposal review or advisory boards but ceding funding decisions about resources that living donors may see as theirs could be a non-starter. Participatory processes of any kind can take considerable time and resources and dealing with potential conflicts of interest when non-grantmakers are participating as both partners with grantmakers and potential applicants for their funding is an ongoing challenge.

Yet it should also be noted that these issues aren’t limited to philanthropic institutions. Individual high-net-worth donors who are eschewing formal charitable giving structures, preferring, instead, to be nimbler and more entrepreneurial with their philanthropy, aren’t necessarily flocking to participatory approaches. This suggests that the real issue holding back the growth of participatory philanthropy is less about practical impediments than about reluctance to cede the power that comes with holding the purse—something participatory grantmakers underscore.

Supporters of participatory grantmaking realize that these power imbalances are so entrenched that dislodging them will require much more than just abstract appeals to democracy. They know that a large swath of philanthropists will want to see evidence that these approaches work—in terms of grantee outcomes, as well as whether they help donors make better philanthropic decisions.

To date, much of the discussion about how to persuade philanthropy of participatory grantmaking’s value and benefits has been relegated to these values- and evidence-focused arguments. Perhaps it’s now time to bring in a third argument—the historical—that combines the values base in which much of charitable giving is grounded, as well as the evidence indicating that participatory approaches can be effective in resolving difficult problems. While participatory philanthropy may seem to be the hot new thing these days, taking a look back at how participation has shaped philanthropy in days gone by may be one of the best ways its champions can make their case.

– Cynthia M. Gibson

Cynthia M. Gibson, Ph.D. is an independent consultant who has worked with hundreds of leading philanthropic institutions and nonprofits, as well as a widely published author on a wide range of issues related to philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, civic engagement, and democratic participation. In 2007, Cynthia helped design, oversee, and evaluate one of the first participatory grantmaking initiatives undertaken by a national foundation, the Case Foundation’s “Make it Your Own” program.


[i] For an excellent timeline of key events in the history of social justice philanthropy, see

[ii] An excellent overview of the history of community foundations’ and their missions can be found at: David Hammack, “Community foundations: The delicate question of purpose,” in The agile servant, R. Magat, ed.(New York: The Foundation Center, 1989). Another valuable source on which some of the material in this section is based is Peter deCourcy Hero, “Convene, connect, endow: Emerging Roles of community foundations in the 21st century,” in Local mission—Global vision: Community Foundations in the 21st Century, P.D. Hero & P Walkenhorst, eds. (New York: Foundation Center, 2008).

2 thoughts on “The Historical Case for Participatory Grantmaking

  1. Great article! It is so helpful to have this articulation of how participatory philanthropy is grounded in history and not just the latest fad. I will refer to this article often!! @The Giving Square we work with family foundations and philanthropists who “give their power” to children through an experiential learning opportunity that culminates in kids making a decisions about how to allocate philanthropic dollars. We see that the investment has a triple effect – great non-profits are supported, we plant the seed of life-long philanthropy, and we learn from the wisdom and insights of children. After seeing participatory philanthropy firsthand, I truly believe it is the future (and the past!).


  2. Hi Amy, thanks so much for posting a comment. PG’ers have also found that once funders “go participatory,” they never go back! That’s why understanding it’s an ethos — not a tactic — is so important; the mindset stays even if the leadership changes.


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