Program Staff Support Participatory Practices, but Foundations Still Only Go So Far

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Originally published at Inside Philanthropy on September 15, 2020

With demands for equity and inclusion in philanthropy growing in recent years, and particularly over the past few months as part of a surging movement for racial justice, critics have called for breaking down the barriers between funders and the beneficiaries of their giving. There appears to be a growing interest in participatory practices in philanthropy, ranging from gathering feedback and input from grantees and beneficiaries to providing external stakeholders authority in funding decisions.

To better understand how people working in the sector view such practices, Inside Philanthropy’s recent survey of foundation program staff asked hundreds of participants how their foundations are seeking input. The results clearly indicate that most are soliciting some form of feedback from grantees, but far fewer seek input directly from the people and communities they are seeking to serve. Furthermore, reflecting an overall disconnect apparent in our survey results, program staff see themselves as more committed to participatory practices than foundation leadership.

Over 90% of survey respondents’ foundations informally gather feedback from grantees about their strategies or grantmaking through conversations or meetings, and nearly 70% do so formally through a survey or other means.

Beyond soliciting feedback from grantees in conversations, respondents say they gather input in “coffee chats” and via social media, as well as through focus groups, interviews and feedback questions on report forms. Given the power dynamic between grantees and funders, these informal methods may not garner completely honest feedback.

“At present, all of our feedback loops are internally controlled, which allows us to filter the content while it’s coming in,” one survey respondent says. “We would benefit from third-party systems.” Some funders use surveys conducted by an external consultant, and many respondents use a tool like GrantAdvisor or the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Grantee Perception Report to benchmark themselves against other funders.

It is less common for foundations to solicit input directly from community residents or end beneficiaries, as groups like the Fund for Shared Insight advocate. In our survey, just four of 10 respondents indicate that their foundations gather feedback and data from the people and communities they seek to benefit. According to one foundation program officer, “We need to do a better job listening to the voices of the lived experience and hearing from those most in need to help drive our grantmaking more.”

Beyond gathering input and feedback individually from grantees and stakeholders, some foundations form committees to provide input, and less frequently, make decisions regarding strategies and grants. About 44% of respondents indicate that their foundations have advisory groups made up of grantees or community residents to provide feedback on programs or strategies, and 34% have committees that provide input or recommendations for grants. As one respondent shares, “We gather input from grantees and from our funding committees that make our grant decisions, which are made up of organizers and activists working in the communities where we fund.”

While gathering some form of feedback is quite common among respondents’ foundations, they remain reluctant to loosen their grip on grantmaking decisions. Fewer than one in five of respondents have grantee or end beneficiary committees with decision-making authority for grants. An exception comes from this program officer from a mid-sized foundation: “Our grantmaking committees are composed of community residents, and we consult with the community and grantees on big-picture strategies.”

There are clearly examples of foundations making sincere attempts to break down the divisions between their organizations and the groups and people their funding is meant to benefit. However, many survey respondents contend that at their organizations, it is “very ad hoc” and “sporadic.” It can vary across the foundation — one respondent says, “Some programs deliberately ask while others don’t.”

Commitment to participatory practices also varies a great deal between different levels within foundations. More than nine in 10 survey respondents say that program staff (e.g., directors, officers, associates) are “very much” or “completely” committed to receiving input and feedback from grantees, compared to 62% for foundation presidents/CEOs and 49% for board members.

While the majority of foundations gather feedback regularly, survey results show a hesitance to consistently act on that feedback. A program officer at one of the largest foundations in the sample says, “It has been many years since grantees were formally surveyed, and leadership has resisted staff requests to continue.” Even when grantees and stakeholders are consulted, another respondent says, “there is a willingness to listen and create space for feedback, but little true dedication from leadership to genuinely incorporate that feedback or accept that these individuals know the answers.”

When asked about foundations’ willingness to receive feedback and input from people intended to benefit from their funding, program staff also see a disconnect between their own commitment and that of leadership. More than 70% say that program staff are “very much” or “completely” committed to this type of input, compared to 50% for presidents/CEOs and just 33% for foundation board members. Fourteen percent of respondents say that their president/CEO is “not at all” or “not very” committed to getting feedback from end beneficiaries, and 23% say the same for board members.

Given the privilege and power that foundations have historically held, these perspectives are not surprising. In many foundations, board members and executives maintain a high level of control over strategies and funding decisions. According to a program officer at a large environmental funder, “We are a board-driven foundation, so they decide high-level funding priorities, not the people most impacted.”

Social-justice-oriented funds, such as those that were part of the Funding Exchange, and some community-oriented foundations are empowering external stakeholders to give input and make decisions. And these practices are even seeping into independent foundations like MacArthur Foundation and Zarrow Families Foundation.

A guide for funders from Grantcraft asserts that “participatory grantmaking is a lever for disrupting and democratizing philanthropy.” In the current environment, where health, economic, political and racial equity crises are colliding to bring even the state of our democracy into question, institutions of wealth and privilege like foundations seem to be increasingly open to disruption. But are they willing to upend the power imbalances that have always hindered the sector’s ability to be responsive?

Receiving feedback from grantees is one thing, but for foundations to maintain their relevance, they should be looking at how to be more transparent and accountable to the people and communities they seek to help. Foundation leadership would do well to allow their staff who are connected to external stakeholders to create processes for participation and inclusion in designing and carrying out their programs.

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