7 Q&As about participatory grantmaking

In February, CIVICUS hosted an animated webinar called ‘Participatory grantmaking in action’ in partnership with UHAI EASHRI, Africa’s first indigenous activist fund supporting sexual and gender minorities and sex worker human rights, and Candid, an organisation that has extensively researched and promoted participatory grantmaking. Both are strong proponents of participatory funding approaches. You can watch there recording on YouTube

Sarina Dayal, from Candid, shared the characteristics and principles of participatory approaches. Amy Taylor, from CIVICUS, shared their journey setting up a young participatory fund called CIVICUS Solidarity Fund. Lastly, Cleo Kambugu, from UHAI, explored the challenges and opportunities they have faced during their 10-year journey as participatory funders. 

Here, we want to share and answer seven most frequently asked questions sent to our panelists before and during the webinar: 

1. What stakeholders are or should be directly engaged in decision making in participatory grantmaking? 

Sarina Dayal: Across the board, participatory grantmakers agree that the very communities impacted by a problem should be at the decision-making table. But figuring out which community members should be involved really depends on your context and can be difficult, even for those who have been doing this for a long time. One of the most important factors in successful processes is being proactive and intentional about involving people from all parts of the community you are seeking to impact, not just those more likely to participate because of their titles, social capital, or financial status.

In addition, figuring out roles with donors and staff also depends on the context. Some funds are completely community-led in that everyone making the funding decisions is a member of the community the fund supports. Community members are also involved in designing the process, conducting outreach, and other steps of the grantmaking process. Other funds involve staff and donors in parts of the grantmaking process such as reviewing proposals, facilitating discussion, and even in granting final sign-off of the funding decision the community came to. Whatever balance of participation is used between community, staff, and donors, it should acknowledge power, privilege, capacity, and what the value-add is to the process and to advancing equity.  

2. In peer-reviewed applications, do peer reviewers provide platforms to the community stakeholders or their representatives to have any interactions and possibly give feedback? 

Amy Taylor: At CIVICUS, we have a Membership Advisory Group (MAG) that makes funding decisions related to the CIVICUS Solidarity Fund.  When the MAG does not have sufficient insight into the context of an applicant under review, they solicit feedback from other members in the CIVICUS alliance who have relevant knowledge and experience. 

3. Is there a downside to participation (e.g. risk of overburdening constituents)? What is the balance of meaningfully involving them but being considerate too of their limited time?

Sarina: The risk of overburdening constituents is real—but possible to avoid! While we don’t want to overburden constituents, participatory grantmakers agree that the greater risk is not involving communities at all. So, this is an excellent reminder to ask ourselves, what are we offering to communities by involving them in this process? One good practice is to open conversations with the community from the very start, so they can co-create a process that is mindful of their capacity and how they want to be involved. You may need to revisit these conversations and alter the process over time to find the right balance. Also, think about what you can do to compensate constituents for their time and thought, whether that be financial compensation, food, transportation, or otherwise. 

4. How can you handle conflicts of interest within the committees when deciding how the resources are allocated?

Cleo Kambugu: You can’t avoid dealing with different interests if you want to involve activists in participatory grantmaking processes. Activists should have a vested interest in making sure that the granted projects go well - this actually strengthens the process. What we do is provide a strong orientation to the review board. This orientation, beyond focusing on the technical skills, focuses on the value of participatory grantmaking and includes how to identify and manage conflicts of interest. We sign a memorandum of understanding with activists that sit in our review board, which elaborates on conflicts of interests and the circumstances in which these can happen, as well as the penalties for breaching it, like being excluded from the board or cutting funding for the organisation they represent. To help them manage a conflict of interest, we set up space in a way that if someone is feeling conflict, they can walk out, or another reviewer can call them out. What we have noticed is that most of the time people walk out of the room by themselves when feeling conflicted. (Hear an extended answer to this question in the webinar recording).

5. How do you guard against perpetuating inequitable or exclusionary dynamics in participatory grantmaking processes?

Amy: In our case, the group making funding decisions - the MAG - is composed of members nominated by members and selected by the CIVICUS Board’s membership committee. One of the key objectives of the selection process is to ensure a diverse MAG that has a variety of personal experiences and professional backgrounds, which helps to mitigate unintended bias in the group’s decision-making processes. To be more inclusive, the MAG tries to look beyond the quality of the writing in applications and prioritise the potential of the idea or degree of the need, often providing flexible funding that can be used for operational costs like office rent or salaries. In the future, the MAG hopes to expand the mediums of applications receivable to include videos and proposals.

6. Can the organisations of peer reviewers apply for grants during a grantmaking cycle when they are reviewing and how do their applications get treated?

Amy: The organisations of the MAG who serve as peer reviewers for the CIVICUS Solidarity Fund are not allowed to apply during the funding cycles that take place over their terms of reference. These individuals also recuse themselves from decision-making when affiliated organisations or alumni apply in order to avoid conflict of interest.

7. What strategies can help engage more donors in participatory grantmaking processes? 

Cleo: As part of our work, we do philanthropic advocacy with multiple stakeholders about participatory grantmaking, among other topics. We feel that if we speak about this often enough in rooms where activists themselves are not able to be, perhaps we can get donors interested. In the past 10 years, there have been many successes and changes in East Africa. Now activists in the region can participate in funding decisions that affect them. We have had law and policy reforms, LGBTQI organisations can now become registered and transgender people can change their genders. In social justice, this is really fast! To continue, we must document these experiences, challenges, opportunities, and successes. It is also necessary to link up with like-minded individuals and organisations and to think about less confrontational and more community-building, practical ways to be more participatory. Building a community of participatory grantmakers has helped us to keep speaking about this in different spaces. We have seen donors becoming more convinced that participatory funding can happen, while funding has become more flexible and less project-oriented.

Learn more about participatory grantmaking:



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