I’m coming up on my 20-year anniversary as a social justice grantmaker. In 1995 I was invited to join an activist-advised fund of a national foundation. There I learned the craft of grantmaking–how to review proposals, conduct site visits, read budgets, and identify programs that would make a difference to the people I worked with on a day-to-day basis. Along with my other colleagues on the fund, I was one of several volunteers. Most of the year we were deeply engaged with our day jobs, at organizations that were addressing the problems facing our communities. We were advocates and grantseekers. And twice a year we became grantmakers, coming together for a few days to advise the foundation on how to give away its money to advance social justice causes.
Our participation was important for a number of reasons: beyond the benefits of drawing on each other’s expertise and thinking together, each of us was connected and accountable to a larger network, and we brought those perspectives with us as we deliberated grant recommendations. Each of us had a particular expertise or focus which allowed us to collectively grapple with the complexities of movement building so that we didn’t inadvertently forget to address the issues that were most important to our communities. Collectively, we brought a gender, race, and class analysis. We considered developing youth leadership as well as how to engage seasoned leaders in the work. We considered geography. And capacity building. We deliberated the ups and downs of a policy focused approach. We each brought a range of perspectives and as a result we were more likely to effectively address the issues that affected our communities.
Since then I’ve worked in publicly and privately funded foundations–making the leap from volunteer to a professional philanthropist. As a broad sector, philanthropy has spent decades focused on achieving good outcomes. Many foundations are committed to inclusive frameworks where people who are most affected by problems are active participants in the decisions that affect their lives. We are committed to empowering affected communities in the fields in which we work. We strive to listen and learn, to model openness and transparency, to be accountable to the organizations we support. But what do these inclusive frameworks look like in practice? How are we engaging communities in our own grantmaking, in our strategy design? In our day-to-day activities? Are we accessible and responsive to the communities we are accountable to?
Engaging community-based leaders in philanthropy is critical to achieving the social change we are striving for. Diverse perspectives of community-based leaders who are closest to the problems and solutions in their communities allow us to be flexible in our grantmaking approaches, adaptable to the rapidly changing conditions we face, and accessible and accountable to the field.
Community-based philanthropy emerges from a practice of grassroots activism. A recent report by the Lafayette Practice, Who Decides: How Participatory Grantmaking Benefits Donors, Communities and Movements, found that a participatory grantmaking model is a democratic practice that requires the participation of a number of people with varied backgrounds and expertise, necessitating both transparency and authenticity.
Bringing the experiences of those most affected by problems to consider the best funding solutions to those problems is smart and strategic. When grant decisions are shared across a group, there’s a greater chance for funding what’s best for a movement. And it has the added value of building diverse philanthropic leadership: by training community leaders in the craft of grantmaking we are building philanthropic literacy, program design skills, fundraising capability and movement and leadership skills of community activists.
How we engage those who we are accountable to in our grantmaking may vary, but it is an essential part of social justice philanthropy. We might work in a structure that allows for a community funding panel, a community advisory board, or we have set up internal structures to be intentional about including community members and grantees in identifying funding priorities and approaches. And at the very least we must be accountable, accessible and responsive to the field.
Surina Khan is a Director in the Democracy Rights and Justice Program at the Ford Foundation. Previously, she served as the Vice President of Programs at the Women’s Foundation of California.