Iesha Small

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Shifting Power in Philanthropy (Participatory Grant Making 101)

silhouette of child on a hill

Taken at Horsey, Norfolk

The world of philanthropy and charity can be paternalistic and awash with power dynamics. How does participatory grant making seek to address this?   

What is participatory grant making?

“Participatory grant making gives decision making power about funding, including the strategy and criteria behind the decision, to the very communities the funders aim to serve” – Cindy Gibson

What does this mean? Simplistically, if a trust or charity is set up to reduce domestic violence, a participatory approach would involve people who have experienced domestic violence at key points in the decision making process about how and where money would be spent.

I can see the benefit of this but since my career expertise is organisations aimed at improving educational and life outcomes for young people my first thoughts were…

  • For an organisation where children and young people are the ultimate beneficiaries how does participatory grant making work in practice?
  • Does it make a difference if the grants being offered are hundreds of pounds, thousands of pounds or in the millions?

In the UK if you are at least 11 years old you can open a bank account so financial institutions feel that children of secondary school age do have some degree of financial responsibility. Should grant making organisations show this sort of fiscal trust to young people too?

What if a fully participatory approach is a hard sell?

Some traditional organisations may have grant making process subject to strict rules which cannot be easily changed (such as family trusts where a fixed proportion of family members must make up the grant committee).

In these cases, grant making can be considered as part of an overall process where there are opportunities for a participatory approach at different points.

  • Pre grant activities (decisions on grant themes etc.)
  • Offering the grant
  • Post grant activities (evaluation and impact measuring etc.)

Some organisations may wish to support intermediaries in using participatory approaches if they are unable to use it themselves. This support could be in terms of sharing resources such as time, expertise or premises or it may be in terms of funding or commissioning or helping to evaluate effectiveness or impact.

What other activities are related to participatory grant making?

I’ve yet to work in or with an organisation that has given young people extensive decision making power about funding (partly because I’m new to working for funders and am usually on the other side of the table).

However, I have worked at organisations where efforts have been made to give the young people they serve greater agency. For example, YHA sought to involve young people in governance by appointing youth trustees to the board and I led a participatory research project into youth homeless while at the Centre for Education and Youth. These types of activities are all in the same family as participatory grant making.

Why bother with participatory making?

Why should people and organisations interested in power, a fairer society and social justice be interested in finding out more about participatory grant making?

“Participatory grant making is a power shifting ethos and process placing the communities the funder aims to serve at the centre.” – Cindy Gibson

The charity and not-for profit world is one awash with power dynamics, whether acknowledged or not. This is particularly true if the founders and senior decision makers are not from the communities the organisation seeks to serve or do not have directly relevant (lived) experience of the societal issue they are seeking to tackle. The introduction of money, and deciding how it will be spent, magnifies these power imbalances no matter how well-intentioned and well-meaning an organisation and the people running it may be. Those of us working in, with, and seeking to serve, marginalised communities or individuals must look for and create opportunities to inform, share and devolve decision making wherever possible.

“Philanthropy must encourage active participation, culture ownership and agency rather than reinforce passivity, dependency and powerlessness.” – Mouktar Kocache, Rawa Fund

The charity and not-for profit world is one awash with power dynamics, whether acknowledged or no Share on X

More than a warm fuzzy feeling inside

Some people might be drawn towards participatory grant making because it feels like the right thing to do. I’m curious about it as somebody interested in what creates conditions for lasting change. From my time as a teacher I was always struck at the importance of accountability in changing behaviour. I was especially interested when Mouktar Kocahe, an experienced grant maker, mentioned two benefits that he had noticed when working in organisations that used participatory grant making:

  • The process shifts accountability to the community we seek to affect
  • It develops leadership, skills, pride and engagement

Questions to consider for organisations considering participatory grant making

Participatory grant making takes time to do well. It may not be right for all organisations. Here are some key questions posed by Hannah Patterson for grant making and philanthropic organisations considering their decision making processes. On reflection, I feel that Hannah’s questions are good ones for all charities or social enterprises to consider.

  1. Are you best placed to understand the communities for whom decisions are being made?
  2. How often do you feel deflated by decisions made in your organisation?
  3. How often do you feel elated by decisions made in your organisation?
  4. How long have you been doing the decision making in your organisation?
  5. How long does it take people in the organisation to truly understand issues at hand before making decisions?
  6. How would you feel if somebody from the community your organisation is trying to help heard decision making conversations? Proud? Embarrassed?
  7. Where does the wealth you distribute come from?
      • If it’s investment what are you investing in for that return?
      • Do the companies/activities being invested in cause any harm? Particularly considering the communities you are seeking to help and represent.



This post is based my personal notes taken while watching the online conference “Participatory Grantmaking 101” hosted by Hannah Paterson of the National Lottery Community Fund. Her expert guests were Moukhtar Kocache and Cindy Gibson. I watched in my capacity as Head of Change for Education at the Youth Endowment Fund. Views here are my own.


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Shifting Power in Philanthropy (Participatory Grant Making 101)