Exploring Participatory Grantmaking with Grants Managers

Are you a grants manager who has heard about participatory grantmaking and wondered what it means, or whether it could work at your organization? Since so many of the resources on participatory grantmaking are targeted at program officers or decision makers, we were curious about these same questions. What does it mean to be a grants manager for a participatory grantmaking program? What is different or the same as grants management in traditional philanthropy?

To get some answers, we interviewed two grants managers: 

  • Janice Tud is the Senior Grants Administrator at Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that supports Wikipedia and sister sites. She is responsible for administering 400+ grants in 40+ currencies to 80 countries each year. 
  • Arlene Wilson-Grant is the Grants Manager for the Disability Rights Fund and the Disability Rights Advocacy Fund. She is responsible for managing all aspects of the administration and legal compliance of the organizations’ grantmaking policies and procedures.

Here’s a short summary of what we learned:

  • Grants management responsibilities around due diligence and compliance are largely the same as in traditional grantmaking.
  • Our interviewees fund more emerging/grassroots organizations—likely due to the community-led decision making—which means the grants manager collaborates more closely with other departments (programs, legal/compliance, finance) to ensure grantees are fully supported.
  • Our interviewees found it values-aligned and fulfilling to work with a participatory grantmaking program.
  • Grants managers involved in participatory grantmaking are happy to share their experiences with others who are interested!

Here’s what we heard from them:

How do you define participatory grantmaking?  

Arlene: It’s the idea that decision-making authority on funding strategies and grants is housed with those communities who  are most impacted by these very things. In the case of the Disability Rights Fund (DRF), disability leaders and activists are shaping these decisions. One of the reasons it’s been so important for DRF to take this approach is because we are trying to shift the paradigm from charity to rights. Persons with disabilities have traditionally been excluded from decisions about things that impact their lives directly, and have instead been treated as passive beneficiaries of charity or medical interventions. Funding for persons with disabilities is usually never about empowerment or advocacy. At DRF, disability activists are decision-makers and at the forefront of what we’re doing. 

Janice: For me, participatory grantmaking is an inclusive and holistic way of reviewing and deciding grant funding. With this approach, we get meaningful insights from people in the community where grant activities would be happening. We learn their needs from their point of view and sometimes find a better way to support them, which may be different from what we think their needs are. 

At the Wikimedia Foundation, participation happens throughout the grantmaking process. The application submission is through public wiki. Reports are also posted publicly. Anyone can question or comment on the application or reports at any time. Most programs also have a committee of community volunteers who make funding recommendations.

What excites you about participatory grantmaking?

Janice: What doesn’t excite me about the process?! The act of sharing the decision making, learning from each other, and working together is inspiring to me.  

Arlene: I love the model because of its emphasis on sharing power with groups who have historically not been in positions of power, and more importantly learning from their knowledge, experience, and expertise. It also excites me that participatory grantmaking is still a relatively new concept. It’s really taken off, and it’s gaining a lot of traction within philanthropic spaces. 

How is it different, on the grants management side, from traditional philanthropy? How do you see your role?

Arlene: In a lot of ways, the grants manager does similar work in compliance and due diligence—these are static and critical elements of our grantmaking. There’s some comfort in that. 

But it’s also different. At DRF, I work very closely with program, finance, monitoring and evaluation, and legal teams—more so than I have at previous foundations. I love sitting in the middle of these teams and working with them to figure out how grants management functions can support their work and the work of DRF. As part of our goal to reach more marginalized communities within the disability movement—including women with disabilities, persons with intellectual disabilities, persons with psychosocial disabilities, and others—DRF is admittedly a high-risk grantmaker. Many of the groups we work with may be new to grantmaking or may not have formal structures such as bank accounts or legal registration. I work to ensure the best ways to support these organizations so that they can be successful with DRF funding. Much of my work with program, finance, monitoring and evaluation, and legal teams is to figure out “how we can get to yes” to support these high-risk organizations that could really benefit from DRF funding and can grow the broader disability and human rights movements. 

Janice: I see my role as a hub where paths intersect. On a typical day I am working cross-departmentally—with finance, legal and our grantmaking team. We are each clear on our roles and have open and frequent communication. I like that I am able to identify possible roadblocks that we might run into down the line, and I have the chance to approach the appropriate stakeholders to see how to work through these challenges ahead of time.  

There tends to be a lot of interaction in a first grant. At that point, my role is to help the organization or individual understand what it means to get a grant, that there are reporting requirements, and make sure they can even receive foreign money transferred to their bank. In my role I have to understand laws and restrictions in foreign funding, and when possible find appropriate paths forward.

How does your grants management system support participatory grantmaking? 

Arlene: We use Blackbaud Grantmaking which is a pretty traditional system. Because we work in parts of the world in which internet connectivity can be unreliable, we accept applications via email. This helps to ensure that groups that want to apply, but may not have the bandwidth to access or upload documents to an online system, can still be considered for funding. We also make our grantmaking applications available in multiple languages and accessible for tools like screen readers. Most communication with applicants and grantees happens via email, telephone, and in-person site visits. DRF’s program officers, who are proficient in multiple languages, are also located on-the-ground in our target countries. 

Janice: We use Fluxx, and a public wiki. Our grants application and reporting is on the wiki and fully transparent. Often it’s the grant administrators updating Fluxx when new applications or reports are posted to the wiki; they are not directly integrated. Since the wiki is openly editable, we send emails to grantees at key points in the project to document important stages within a grant's life cycle. Although edits on the wiki are timestamped showing an audit trail, emails are a more common way of communication and documentation that is recognizable to our auditors. We also use email to discuss any sensitive issues. 

Are there any challenges for grants managers in supporting participatory grantmaking?

Janice: I could see how participatory grantmaking could add some time for grants managers. For example if a committee is late with their recommendations, it can create scheduling difficulties especially for grant managers working with multiple grant programs that have funding schedule deadlines impacted by the delay. Also if you were piloting participatory grantmaking, there would be extra time involved due to the learning curve needed for both the staff and the community. 

What is something you want every grants manager to know? 

Arlene: I work with program, legal, finance—I love that. And I love data and numbers! Grants managers have such deep information about their foundations’ grantmaking and the communities they support and this information can and should be leveraged to help their foundation’s forecast and strategize in unique ways. For example, I produce a comparative analysis report each year to our grantmaking committee and board that helps us to better understand the rights-based areas in which our grantees work. This information has been used to support our strategic thinking and with the development of our grantmaking priority areas.

As organizations think about participatory grantmaking, it’s incredibly important to include grants management in the conversation. I appreciate how leaders like PEAK Grantmaking, Candid, GrantCraft, and others are thinking about how grants management professionals can be part of those conversations. The decision about whether or not to explore participatory grantmaking doesn’t have to be only a Board or C-suite conversation—it can build from a grants management perspective. 

What advice do you have for grants managers interested in piloting or exploring participatory grantmaking at their foundation?

Arlene: Learn from the body of research that is being developed. There are important resources such as the Grantcraft Guide: Deciding Together Shifting Power and Resources Through Participatory Grantmaking, or Candid's blog post Why Every Funder Should Consider Participatory Grantmaking. There’s a lot out there now, and it’s exciting to see how foundations are adopting this in different ways. The journey is about finding what works best for those communities you’re trying to support and that is true to your mission and that works for your foundation. Research this, talk to those who are doing this, and wherever possible to position yourself to be part of moving participatory grantmaking forward. It might start as a conversation “hey, I went to this session at a conference” or “I read this article,” with a lot of information and data that might support decision-making about whether or not to adopt the practice. 

Janice: You are not alone—other grantmakers have had to start here too. There are people who have had similar goals who you can talk to. Grantmakers who do participatory grantmaking love to share their knowledge and learn from each other!

If you’re thinking about participatory grantmaking at all, just do it! Just pilot it. Anyone who is interested in supporting communities where their needs are at, that is enough of a reason to do participatory grantmaking. Don’t just think big—think logistics. It will only work if it’s logistically realistic. Save your really big ideas for next go around.

If you’re a grants manager interested in adopting Participatory Grantmaking for your Foundation, know that you’re not alone! There’s a growing community of philanthropy professionals who are implementing Participatory Grantmaking as a way to create even greater impact with their work. Start a conversation with your colleagues, read the growing body of resources, and think about the ways your existing systems could support a shift toward this more inclusive and holistic model of grantmaking.

This is just the beginning—and we’d love to keep the conversation going. Reach out to Katy or Tierney if you’re interested in chatting further.

Tierney Smith's headshot

Tierney Smith

Implementation Management Service Lead

Change Management

Tierney specializes in helping grantmakers align their grantmaking processes with their values and make effective use of technology. As a Service Lead and Senior Philanthropy Consultant at GrantBook, she helps clients redesign their processes and successfully implement grants management systems. She is especially passionate about creating stronger funder-grantee partnerships by helping funders implement grantee-centric, trust-based practices. 

Previously, Tierney worked at TechSoup Canada to provide nonprofits with access to low-cost technology and educational resources. She has also worked as a software developer and project manager in the corporate sector. She has a degree in Software Engineering from the University of Waterloo.

Katy Love

Katy Love is an experienced practitioner of participatory grantmaking. She is an independent consultant helping to shift power in philanthropy towards more just, effective, and transparent processes.