Tomorrow is an exciting day: FundAction will announce its first grants! The process to get to this point took over a year, but it was worth every second. Not only because of the outcome: eight grants for inspiring exchange and capacity building initiatives by activists in Europe, but moreover because of the process itself: a unique collaboration between funders and activists. But does participatory grant-making not mean philanthropic institutions are excluded from the decision making processes? Or should — on the contrary — the strict boundary between donors and recipients fade away?

About a year ago about thirty activists and five representatives of progressive foundations gathered in Seville. The meeting was a results of ongoing conversations between foundations and their grantees on how to democratise grant making. While activists demanded a direct say in decisions on the distribution of funds, foundations acknowledged they have to be held accountable for their decisions and have to adopt the same standards of participation that it is asking of others. The task of the participants in Seville was to translate this ambition into a prototype. The conversations in Seville and in the months that followed resulted in FundAction — a pilot for participatory grant-making.

Among the most debated issues there is one that still hasn’t been solved entirely: the role of the foundations. In traditional grant-making foundations have the monopoly on decisions concerning the distributions of their funds. Sometimes they hire experts or advisors from the field, but they keep the final say in how their money is spent. This seems quite logical, but we have to realise that “their money” is not really their money. It is wealth that has been accumulated — often in a rather questionable way — and at some point committed to a certain issue. If we look at it in that way, it makes total sense that the ones who are affected by that issue are also the ones deciding. But usually they are not the ones that comprise staff of the foundations, and if they do it’s a much selected group that doesn’t necessarily represent the whole community. Since money is power, power is in this model concentrated with a very small number of people. It reflects what is wrong with society in general.

Participatory grant-making aims to break this power imbalance. But is handing over all power and responsibility to a group of activists and building a wall between them and the foundation the solution? It seems attractive, because it creates a divide between the one who has the money and the one who distributes it. This can protect activists from the sometimes toxic relationship that can be developed out of a money-centered dynamic. However, power will not go away, because grant-making is exercising power by definition. Isn’t it much better to share this power, rather than hiding it behind a wall?

Therefore we decided that in FundAction a limited number of foundation representatives are part of the Facilitation group, but can’t influence decisions about individual grants. In this way the activists can benefit from the expertise the foundation staff has: there is no need to invent the wheel in every aspect of grant-making. The foundations can learn from the way activists operate, and they will benefit from this knowledge also in other aspects of their work. Rather than doing a small pilot on participatory grant-making in the margins of its work, the foundation can potentially be changed from within.

But most importantly, there is one thing even worse than a toxic relationship: no relationship at all. If foundations are completely excluded from the process, very likely they will judge the process on its outcome: the grants. If the foundation doesn’t like the granted initiatives, it could withdraw the support for the whole platform, because that ultimate power they still have. If, on the other hand, the foundation is part of the conversation, but in a position with shared power, it’s much more likely that the funder will commit to the process itself — whatever decisions the activists take.

This can drastically improve the relationship between funders and grantees and even create a new definition of We. In a philanthropic-civic collaboration model in which everyone contributes the different type of resources they have to get a small step closer to the ultimate goal: a just and equitable world. Or as Charlie Tims, reporter of the Seville meeting, states: “A participatory platform is a better way of creating trust and reciprocity, because it makes power in the system more obvious and accountable, not because it makes it disappear or has been given over to those who need it. If we pretend it does, it could be possible — with the best of intentions — to create something worse.”

Dealing with power relations in participatory grant-making was written by Menno Weijs (European Cultural Foundation).