Equalizing the Power Dynamic in Philanthropy

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Equalizing the Power Dynamic in Philanthropy
by Ana Oliveira, President & CEO, The New York Women’s Foundation

You may have seen a recent report released by The Ford Foundation that extolls the merits of participatory grantmaking.  It’s gratifying to see this type of responsive, collaborative decision- making finally getting the attention it deserves.

Participatory grantmaking is a powerful tool with enormous potential to change how we think about and carry out philanthropy.  That’s why, for more than three decades, it has been the cornerstone of The New York Women’s Foundation’s approach to funding. We have deployed it successfully to award more than $66 million to local, women-led organizations working to disrupt the cycles of poverty, and gender and racial injustice in their communities.

But, we diverge in outlook with The Ford Foundation’s study in that we consider participatory grantmaking to be a match of equals, an insider’s game. As insiders, community members already know the best ways to approach their local challenges. Respecting their insights and knowledge, we ask them to decide with us where resources should go, rather than determining what their problems are or how to fix them.

That’s what makes participatory grantmaking so effective. It utilizes the on-the-ground knowledge and experience of local leaders and grassroots organizations to surface underlying problems and solutions often missed by other approaches, and co-determine the allocation of funding. And because participatory grantmaking goes beyond listening to community to involving them in decision-making, it deeply mitigates the inherent inequality of power present in traditional philanthropy.

Participatory grantmaking also brings visibility to leaders from constituencies that are often overlooked. For example, last year, through our Girls Ignite! Grantmaking initiative in partnership with the YWCA of the City of New York, we expanded our participatory grantmaking work to include girls. The program cultivates the next generation of philanthropists, providing fellowships to teenage girls and gender-fluid youth of varying racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds from across the city and empowering them as grantmakers.  Over the school year, the fellows explore social justice issues, leadership, advocacy, peer group dynamics, community engagement, and financial decision making. This is more than an academic exercise. They are given real money to award to charitable organizations that they have vetted and found worthy.

At its core, participatory grantmaking challenges the very notion of how philanthropy works and who can be a philanthropist.  It is one of many levers that can dismantle racism, sexism and elitism which exists even in the world of philanthropy and giving, from the inside.  It is not just a powerful tool; it is a tool for sharing power and one that can be wielded effectively by philanthropies large and small.



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