People-Powered Grantmaking Makes Lasting Change Possible
Grantmaking is about power. We cannot address systemic inequities within philanthropy until we get frank about who has power and how we use it. These days, many foundations are looking to accommodate a greater diversity of voices in their work—whether by building a more inclusive staff, board and/or reviewing participatory grantmaking models. These efforts will have limited impact, however, unless they happen in coordination with a commitment to shift power in a meaningful way.
What does this mean? North Star Fund has been grappling with this question since our founding. We were started by a group of New Yorkers who wanted to make philanthropy more accessible, collaborative, and accountable to communities. They believed in awarding grants through a collective process that centered the decision-making power of local activists and organizers. Over the years, the organization has evolved so that today our grantmaking is led by community organizers who voluntarily serve on committees and work with staff to design and implement our awards process. Together, we work to support social justice movements in New York City and the Hudson Valley by operationalizing the belief that philanthropy can build power by providing general operating, unrestricted, multi-year support to grassroots organizing groups targeting systemic, root causes of inequality.
When we talk about “participatory grantmaking” at North Star Fund, we are talking about the interaction of three core principles: (1) real shifts in power; (2) decision making held by communities most impacted by injustice; and (3) a comprehensive equity lens applied to all our work.
1. Participatory Grantmaking Requires Real Shifting of Decision-making Power
First, in order to achieve a truly participatory process, a foundation must be prepared to cede real power to the participatory panel in the design and implementation of the grantmaking process. Some foundations create a restrictive "container" around which the actual decision making becomes limited in breadth and scope—it’s an advisory conversation, or specifically-sought input around a certain question or proposal, and not grantmaking with breadth of authority.
At North Star Fund, our community funding committees make decisions about awards, as well as all aspects of the grantmaking process, including funding categories, application process, grant size, and site visit procedures. Our program officers work with the committee members to create the process and focus on facilitation and member support—not intervention or directional decision making.
More broadly, the funding committee members have representation on North Star Fund's Board of Director and play a key role in shaping the values and leadership priorities of the institution. As a result of this collaborative and intentional design, we have ceded the traditional "power" of a foundation to the community funding committee members, and we are mutually accountable to each other through processes we have designed to be as clearly separated, transparent, and supportive as possible.
2. Community Organizers Working in Neighborhoods Most Impacted by the Injustices Addressed Should Lead the Grantmaking Process
Participatory grantmaking at North Star Fund is rooted in collective leadership by communities most impacted by the injustices the grantmaking seeks to alleviate. For us, it is not merely the inclusion of diverse, non-traditional, non-director voices in a grant selection process. As our grantmaking supports grassroots organizing in New York and the Hudson Valley, our participatory grantmaking process is led by grassroots organizers from a range of community groups working in those geographic regions across different disciplines. Organizers bring lived experiences with injustice as well as expertise in how to support systems change through grassroots-led campaigns for justice.
In many ways, this model also enables us to ensure that we are tracking the work in our sector and receiving feedback in a constant loop.
3. Participatory Grantmaking Requires an Equity Lens
In a process that is truly participatory, participants experience transparency around envisioning new and different power relationships. In such a setting, it is essential for the grantmaking to have an equity lens—meaning it should be rooted in understanding the root causes of systemic oppression, designed to support solutions that center communities of color leading with solutions, and built around organizations and processes that are responsive to the racism, wealth inequalities, and other systemic biases found in philanthropy. This values framework can disrupt traditional philanthropy practices in a number of ways. For example, at North Star Fund, our participatory process has made the foundation accountable to the movements we support. Due to our community funding committee’s leadership, we have vastly streamlined our application process, provide only general operating/unrestricted grants, provide transparency about resources available and request input from the grantee community about allocation of resources, and provide (wherever possible) continued, long-term support over multiple years.
When our communities lead, we have victories rooted in integrity and solutions that are successful because they are based on experiences one cannot simply learn. The same is true in philanthropy. When communities lead in grantmaking, the results are inspiring. North Star Fund has over its 40 year history consistently been one of the first funders of groups that go on to have terrific track records in part because of the relationships and record they build while a part of the North Star Fund portfolio. Our community funding committee is not just grantmaking institution but a group that keeps the foundation rooted in developing programs that support the sector's organizational development and responsive to grantee needs.
How can all of this apply to a foundation that does not see our community funding committee model as viable? Admittedly, it is resource-intensive to recruit, on-board, and retain community funding committee members. In an ecosystem where non-profit workers have to do more and more with less resources, our all-volunteer community funding committee is a big lift. Participants join because of mission alignment but also because they are interested in learning more about philanthropy and building skills in grantmaking, collaborative process, and other related areas. It is a space for leadership development, and a great network for building relationships.
As a field, there is always space to interrogate our practices and to rethink how we can best apply an equity lens to shift power within our organizations. We recommend foundations look at NCRP’s Power Moves and the Whitman Institute’s Trust-Based Philanthropy principles as guides in rethinking the type of power your foundation may exercise in your decision making process.
The North Star Fund model demonstrates that ceding power creates powerful outcomes for the communities we serve.
North Star Fund
What is #DisruptPhilanthropyNOW!:
WITHIN OUR LIFETIME and OLD MONEY NEW SYSTEM COMMUNITY OF PRACTICE have issued an invitation for courageous and collective action, joined by the National Committee For Responsive Philanthropy to movement building groups and racial justice and healing organizations. We urge groups to challenge philanthropy to develop racially just grantmaking practices and transform structures, so we can collectively tackle structural racism and white supremacy.
We must disrupt philanthropy, intervene against inequitable practices, and transform the sector by redistributing wealth so we collectively end racism within our lifetime. We must move beyond transactional funding relationships to demand accountability with philanthropy as we demand it in other sectors. There are philanthropic leaders who have been advocates for justice and we need to work with them intentionally and strategically.
We must work collectively to share our stories about funders’ inequitable practices to lessen the consequences on every organization. Keeping our voice unheard leads to the conclusion there is no urgency for the philanthropic sector to be transformed. We can no longer let fear of consequences deter us from speaking our truth about the impact of unjust practices by our funders. We must radically transform philanthropy and organize for racially equitable resource distribution.
What can you do NOW…
TELL YOUR STORY: If you are an organization that has experienced racially inequitable practices with a foundation, and you are interested in sharing it - please use this google form and someone will contact you. And we also now have an encrypted email address: DisruptPhilanthropy@protonmail.com. Your information will be confidential until you are ready to share your story. You may choose to share your story anonymously.
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In future blog posts we will continue to share with you some of the work already happening to transform philanthropy. Please share your examples and ideas with us, along with stories of effective racial equitable grant making at DisruptPhilanthropy@protonmail.com