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Actualizing Participatory Grantmaking: What does it take?

In August, the Foundation team convened for two days of joint learning and knowledge sharing. During our intensive away day, we were able to hear from a few of our partners about their work in depth and also spent time learning more about the current landscape of corporate giving and philanthropy. 

One of the most interesting and eye-opening presentations we received during that learning session was from Coco Jervis of Mama Cash

Mama Cash is an international women’s fund founded in 1983. Not only is it the world’s first international women’s fund, but it is now likely the world’s largest participatory grantmaker - and their journey to becoming a fully participatory grant maker is exactly what our team was eager to hear about. 

Since its inception, Mama Cash has granted money to women’s organizations around the world, with a special and deliberate focus on intersectional feminist organizations and activist movements supporting women, girls, trans and intersex people. Their grants are made to empower the organizations, facilitate their agency and autonomy, and are driven by creating what Coco calls “trustful relationships.” From the start, it’s been a unique funder. The emphasis is on making core, flexible, and long-term grant support to self-led groups, meaning groups which are led by the members of the population they seek to benefit. Few funders are generally committed to making core and flexible grants; even fewer support their grantees for the long term - and Mama Cash is one of these, supporting grantees for on average 10 years. 

This means that they fund only a few new groups per year, with most grants going to fund support for existing groups. And the new groups which they fund are selected through a participatory process.

Participatory grantmaking is a term that has come to the fore in funding circles over the past several years, with even large, established grantmakers choosing to resource funds and organizations using participatory methods. Even so, the term has a variety of definitions and manifestations. (Our own Spark Fund, a partnership with Global Fund for Children, is an example of how we’ve approached this practice.) For Mama Cash, the term means: “The practice of ceding grantmaking power to affected community members and constituencies that a funder aims to serve.” In short, it’s about using the practice of grantmaking to change traditional power dynamics and challenge power hierarchies. As Coco described it, it requires at a fundamental level “creating space for those affected by injustice and inequalities to make decisions and determine priorities, [with the aim that] grantmaking becomes more informed by and responsive to the actual needs of communities on the ground.”

But how to cede power without being completely extractive of the communities that the grantmaker is trying to empower? After all, grantmaking is a complex and delicate process. Funders want and need to know that their money will be well-used, and it’s critical to select organizations which can responsibly and ethically serve their beneficiaries. Due diligence is labor intensive and can require legal and financial expertise. This is a fundamental issue that grantmakers need to grapple with, and Mama Cash has found a balance.

Its Community Committee is made up of 11 members who serve two-year terms and receive a stipend for their contribution. While the “ComCom”, as it’s called, makes all funding decisions, they are supported by a professional staff at Mama Cash, which operates the call for applications, conducts the initial screening on applications, and performs all required due diligence. This is important. With 1500 applications per year to the Resilience Fund needing to be whittled down to a final 15 grant recipients, the staff at Mama Cash plays a crucial role in narrowing the field and enabling the ComCom to perform its grantmaking duties effectively. They’ll review just over 100 applications to make the final selection.

The participatory nature of the grantmaking goes a step further, in that applicants themselves also have some influence on what the ComCom will ultimately consider. They are, as a part of the application process, able to suggest what issues should be prioritized by Mama Cash in the funding round. The aggregate data from all applications then becomes a data point and one of the factors considered when awarding funding. 

In addition to funding and supporting organizations over the long term, Mama Cash performs an important advocacy role with other funders. The applications they receive provide a yearly data point on what issues impacting women, girls, trans, and intersex people are emerging globally - and what issues these communities think are particularly important. Using this information, Mama Cash also helps to influence others to support causes and groups which may be outside their immediate scope or ability to resource directly. One trend which they observed over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic and especially during lockdowns, was the increase in requests coming from nascent activist groups in politically precarious environments, who were doing the bulk of their work digitally and in online spaces. As we know, the internet plays a huge role in enabling activists, journalists, and citizens in politically repressive environments to access the information, support, and networks that they need to create positive social change. 

Getting to this stage was not necessarily easy, and there were plenty of lessons learned along the way that other funders considering becoming more participatory would do well to take note of. 

Here’s what Coco shared with our team.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel! It is not yet the mainstream or most widely practiced way of doing grantmaking, but there is a developing community of practice around participatory grantmaking. Reach out to others. Study their methods. And determine what works for your organization. How can you begin to share and cede power to the people and communities you’re committed to benefit?
  • Start small. Participatory grantmaking will require a mindset shift as well as a shift in policies, practices, and communication strategies. Take it one step at a time - and involve the community and your stakeholders as you make changes to your organization and its practices.
  • Be willing to take risks. If you’re considering bringing participatory grantmaking to your organization, you’re probably already willing to think outside the box and be less conventional. You’ll also need to be open to learning and sharing (see point 4) and being transparent about failures, because some missteps are inevitable. Embrace these as part of the learning process and undertake risks in ways that your organization will be able to manage capably.
  • Share what’s learned. Give back to the communities of practice and to the wider philanthropic community by sharing your successes, failures, questions, and what you and your stakeholders have learned on your journey. 

The Avast Foundation was conceived with participation and inclusive practices at the heart, and we’ve approached our mission with curiosity and open minds as we learn from practitioners and organizations that are doing this work day-in and day-out. I’m very grateful to Coco for being able to share the bulk of her insightful presentation with our audience as well. 

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