When shouldn’t you use participatory grant making?

Hannah Paterson
6 min readFeb 4, 2020

As you can tell from this report and the work I’ve been involved in, I’m a big advocate for participatory grant making (PGM). I think having diverse community voices in the design and delivery of funding is a great way to make effective and impactful grants. However, I also think there are some instances and contexts for which PGM might not be the most suitable approach.

  1. The first of these is in urgent action or rapid response funding. This is often when a funder is required to provide a funding decision within a day or a week, and also to get the money to an organisation or individual within this time frame. When you’re working at such pace, having the community involved in these decisions might not be possible, primarily because it is very likely to slow response times down. Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights is a good example of funding being delivered in this way.

However, If a fund is working in this way and moving money too fast to make it possible to meaningfully involve the community receiving funding in the decision making, there are still ways to involve them in the design and development of the fund’s strategies, priorities and eligibility. Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights, for example, still has a network of advisors who support them, despite providing such rapid funding (within 1–10 days).

2. The second context where PGM might not be the best option is situations where it is done badly. Doing PGM is hard and sometimes we can end up causing more harm to communities than the problems we are trying to solve, often unintentionally. This can happen when a funder’s behaviour undermines or damages a community, individuals or the relationships involved, and the impact of this can be unfair and harmful. This can be done in lots of different ways including:

  • Tokenistic approaches whereby a community is asked to spend time and effort for no other purpose than to tick a box.
  • Taking people’s time and input for granted.
  • Not listening to communities or ignoring the insights they provide if it doesn’t match what a funder wants to hear.
  • Having no clear parameters around the role of the community or why they are being asked to be involved.
  • A community’s input not actually having any impact on the decisions made.
  • Expectations not being managed and the funder not being able to deliver what they have said they would.
  • No feedback loop, with community members brought in but not being told about the outcomes of their involvement.
  • Communities being asked to input on the design and decision-making of something that isn’t their area of expertise, without the resources being invested to build their expertise.
  • Communities not being resourced properly for their time and skills to take part in PGM, which is also extractive.

As I said, this is often unintentional — the way we design participation can inadvertently waste people’s time or make their engagement feel frustrating and dis-empowering by putting our needs ahead of those engaging in the process. Being really honest with ourselves and understanding where the involvement of communities is situated on a spectrum of participation will help us to define our roles better. It helps participants make an informed decision about whether this is something they want to be involved with. Below is the IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation:

It is also helpful to use trust-based approaches — be honest about the parameters in which you are working, what role the community plays, what is and isn’t possible, the time frames you are working to and what challenges you might be facing. Being honest is not a one-time thing, it’s about working collaboratively and letting people know if something isn’t feasible even after their engagement; communication needs to go on through the life cycle of the project, not just the day or part community members were involved in.

I was lucky enough to meet with Shaady Salehi from Trust Based Philanthropy, who spoke about the six principles they use that act as a framework to support grant makers to develop more trust-based relationships. These principles can be used with PGM, but are not exclusive to it and have been developed for all philanthropic funding: https://thewhitmaninstitute.org/grantmaking/trust-based-philanthropy/.

Their principles are:

  • Provide multi-year, unrestricted funding: The clearest way to demonstrate trust is to rely on the grantee to determine the best use of its resources.
  • Do the homework: Foundations should do the footwork and conduct due diligence before inviting communities to invest their time and attention.
  • Be transparent and responsive: Be open with your time frames and processes so as not to over-burden.
  • Solicit and act on feedback.
  • Simplify and streamline paperwork: Look to reduce the burden of unnecessary report writing, work with grant holders and other funders to share reporting methods and due diligence processes.
  • Offer support beyond the cheque: How do you help your grantees develop, learn and network?

3. The third context in which PGM may not be the best approach is when communities do not have the expertise, specialism or knowledge to make a decision. There may be thematic or long-term funding programmes that require a level of specialist expertise that may not exist across a whole community. Examples include technological, medical, scientific or digital solutions where expertise is required to make the right call. When this is the case, where and how do we bring that expertise in? Does it lie within or outside a foundation? When is community insight required?

In these instances it’s about understanding what and whose knowledge is needed at what point, as well as understanding what framing or training is required to allow decision makers to make the most informed grants. You might remember the Simpsons episode where Homer is asked to design his perfect car while ignoring all the advice from the experts in car design; it turns into a total disaster that resulted in an unfeasible product.

a green car not fit for purpose
Homer Simpsons Car

4. The fourth instance is when communities do not understand, or are not given the opportunity to understand, the wider context and ecosystem which funding decisions impact. We need to be able to make decisions that are framed by such questions as ‘what harm does this do?’, ‘what will this displace?’ and ‘what are the unintended consequences?’ with the people in the room who are able to answer these. We need to be able to set the parameters of these decisions — what are we willing to fund?

People can sometimes desire things that may be good for them and their communities, but that will have negative impacts on others or the planet, for example. How do we manage this? What are the contexts in which we are working? Do we or they have the information, knowledge and expertise to make a call? Are there wrong choices? Who decides what a wrong choice is? Unless managed and addressed, explicitly co-design and PGM approaches might exacerbate the negative consequences inadvertently created by these decisions.

This is particularly true for some models of PGM such as community voting events, where deliberations and discussions might not be possible and it might, therefore, be irresponsible to devolve power to communities that might make decisions that cause more harm than good. Should funders be sifting out proposals that are unsuitable or harmful? How do we work with communities to understand collectively what this harm is? Can we collectively work together to define the parameters by which we are making these decisions? And can deliberations be facilitated to ensure that we continuously readdress the impacts of decisions, both positive and negative?

I think these things are possible. They require us to design and deliver PGM with these questions front and centre, embedded from conception and not as an afterthought.

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Hannah Paterson

Churchill Fellow exploring how communities can be more involved in decisions about where and how money for their communities is spent