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Other peoples problems

Updated: Aug 11, 2021

We work in a field often labeled the “social sector,” one in which foundations, impact investors, and nonprofits collectively aim to address the world’s thorniest problems.

This kind of work can be very appealing, especially to a certain kind of young person trying to figure out how to use privilege for good.


Social critic Courtney Martin has called this the “reductive seduction of other people’s problems,” writing that “if you’re young, privileged, and interested in creating a life of meaning, of course you’d be attracted to solving problems that seem urgent and readily solvable.” She notes that “There is a whole ‘industry’ set up to nurture these desires and delusions … encompassed so fully in the patronizing, dangerously simple phrase ‘save the world.’”


But over the past few years, we, like many of our pedigreed peers, have become more critical of this industry, its power dynamics, and our own role in it. The social sector, like so many institutions, faces a moment of reckoning. Books like Edgar Villanueva’s Decolonizing Wealth and Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas have punctured the air of righteousness around the architects of social change. Twenty years into philanthropy’s so-called golden age, the unchecked rise of global inequality raises questions about just how effective those trillions in largesse have been.


Within philanthropy, the field may be said to have reached a moment of self-reflection. At the 2019 Skoll Forum, normally a place for heady optimism about the state of innovation and social change, one plenary session asked, “Is Philanthropy Part of the Solution or the Problem?” The moderator began by asking the roughly 250 people in the audience if they agreed with the statement that “philanthropy is at a moment of reckoning.” Nearly everyone raised their hand.


Still, many of the big ideas for reform emanating from philanthropy over the past year— pledges to waive grant restrictions, or to “listen” to community members—have proven inadequate. At this moment, when so many nonprofit leaders are feeling disconnected from and disrespected by the institutions that fund them, and when massive inequality is creating a growing chasm of lived experience between people with money and people with ideas, shifting who makes decisions and how is vitally important.


Shifting Power

The term of art is “participatory grantmaking,” but what this really means is a shift in power so that participation is meaningful. The idea behind participatory grantmaking is both simple and powerful:

  • What if we shifted decision-making power away from supposedly expert grantmakers and investors?

  • What if people with lived experience had the power to devise and implement solutions to the problems they face?

Participatory grantmaking is a form of trust-based philanthropy that extends listening much further by directly engaging community members, including grantees, in the decision-making process around grants.


In the past decade, it has grown rapidly—from newer activist-led foundations like the Disability Rights Fund and Young Feminist Fund, to the halls of some of the biggest foundations in the world, including Ford.


We believe that foundations have a moral obligation to engage in participatory grantmaking. But they won’t necessarily do it on their own—because it’s unfamiliar, because it challenges their authority, and because it can be hard to form authentic connections with people who are not them.


For all these reasons, social movement and nonprofit leaders as educators, advocates, and community intermediaries have key roles to play in advancing the participatory grantmaking movement and pushing philanthropy to change:


1) Educate: In our interviews with foundation leaders and donors, a common theme emerges: Trust in philanthropy is eroding and philanthropists know it. Philanthropy is only effective if philanthropists find social movement and nonprofit partners. Many grantmakers recognize something must change, and this group appears to be increasingly open to alternative models for giving.


This means there’s a chance to educate funders on what alternative models might look like. There are many “how to” resources available, like Grantcraft’s fantastic guide Deciding Together.


A broader resource is the Participatory Grantmaking Community, a community of practice for grantmakers interested in learning among peers regarding how to shift grantmaking power away from themselves and towards those most affected. Founded in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic, the group has grown to have over 300 members within philanthropy.


There is, in short, a growing cultural shift within the field that can, if shoved from outside philanthropy, be amplified.


2) Advocate: A year ago, the Chronicle of Philanthropy published an op-ed encouraging grantmakers to loosen restrictions on funding. Diana Samarasan, founding executive director of the Disability Rights Fund, and philanthropic consultant Katy Love were unimpressed. They responded with a strongly worded letter to the editor challenging funders “to go further and ask, ‘Who is sitting at funder decision-making tables?’” This kind of constructive debate is critical and will need to be driven by grantees at conferences, on webinars, and across tables.


3) Connect: One major cost that can scare some funders away from participatory grantmaking is the time it takes to engage with community members. The process only works if the foundation can build authentic relationships with people who represent the communities they serve.


3) Drive Transformative investment: GrowZA occupies itself thinking through the unique opportunity we have as citizen investors to reform social investment practice from an accessible base of resources (our personal tax contribution) that can be harnessed to drive access to opportunity for underserved and working-class communities.


The time for change has come, the pandemic has again proven that we must truly be in this together.


Adapted from an article by Ben Wrobel and Meg Massey - 19 June 2021