Experimenting with Participatory Grantmaking: Partner Grant Reflection

Two of Washington Women’s Foundation’s values are sharing power and being in community. When we first heard about participatory grantmaking, it seemed like something we had to try, because it was so clearly aligned with these values. This model of grantmaking includes community members as decision-makers, bringing individuals who are part of the community a funder aims to serve into the grantmaking process. Power dynamics in philanthropy have an outsized influence on how grants are made, who makes those decisions, and even who knows about grant opportunities. Participatory grantmakers acknowledge and talk about power and look for ways to disrupt harmful power dynamics. 

Our Process

For our Fall 2019 Diversity Partner Grant, we decided to bring this model of grantmaking to WA Women’s Fdn and partnered with Potlatch Fund to focus on community building in Native Communities.  This was our second partnership with Potlatch Fund, and we specifically chose to partner with them again because in spite of the persistent inequities faced by native communities, Native Americans receive less than one half of one percent of philanthropic dollars in the United States.

Because WA Women’s Fdn is a collective grantmaker, we created a grant committee made up of 5 native community members and 5 WA Women’s Fdn members. In recognition of the time, energy, and expertise our native community members shared with us by participating in this group, we gave them each a stipend. Potlatch Fund was a key partner for us, sharing extensive background information with WA Women’s Fdn members before we started working as a grant committee. Potlatch Fund also shared applications that had been submitted to their Community Building grant portfolio for us to review, streamlining our process and leveraging their community knowledge and connections. 

There are a lot of practices in philanthropy that exist simply because they are the way things have been done. Community members on our committee encouraged us to think beyond our traditional grantmaking structure, and together, we reimagined how a process for selecting grantees could be more equitable. In response to their recommendations, we made a few key changes in this grant process:

  • We centered relationship-building between committee members in our process. We held meetings in members’ homes, instead of in our office building. This helped committee members get to know each other more, and we built relationships over shared food in a comfortable place.
  • We centered relationship-building with Native organizations in our process. Instead of site visits, the community members on the committee discussed grant applicants on a separate phone call in between meetings, and then made recommendations to the full group for consideration. This meant that we received the value of their insights and close relationships with the Native organizations. It also meant that we did not have to burden grantees with the stressful experience of a site visit. Instead, we asked our new grantees when it would be convenient for us to visit them after the grants had been given with the goal of building relationships. 
  • We redefined our power as grantmakers. As we heard at Intersect, communities can gain power through linking social networks and creating social capital. So our members serving on this committee tapped into their networks of friends, family, and fellow members to raise additional funds beyond the initial pool of $17,500.
  • We centered relationship-based learning throughout our process.  We also revisited how we typically collect impact stories and information after a grant is made. Together we re-thought how we’d follow up with our new grantees. Instead of traditional written reports, we agreed to try phone calls with each organization, with reports written by WA Women’s Fdn staff. 

Our New Grantees

We are honored to introduce you to our new grantees, Salish School of Spokane and Inchelium Language & Cultural Association. Both organizations are working to revitalize the traditional languages of the Salish people. The grant committee learned how a strong identity, a sense of self-worth, and strong relationships empower Native communities to make healthy choices and increases individual resiliency when faced with challenges or crises. We were inspired to hear how these organizations are restoring one of the first things targeted by the forces of colonization: language. With funds from WA Women’s Fdn, our sponsor Laird Norton Asset Management, and the additional dollars raised, we were able to give two $10,185 grants.

The mission of the Inchelium Language & Culture Association is to foster and sustain a dynamic community of Salish Language speakers whose daily lives are expressed through a commitment to the Lakes and Colville culture and a connection to their traditional territories. Our grant will support the Upper Columbia Canoe Journey and Salmon Ceremony, a gathering of the people to pray for the return of Salmon that has been going on since time immemorial. 

Salish School of Spokane’s mission is: dynamic Salish language revitalization powering cultural renewal and building a stronger, healthier community. In addition to its K-12 Salish immersion school, the School offers weekend and evening Salish classes for adults, cultural events, and supports native language revitalization for other native language communities. Our grant will support general operations at Salish School of Spokane.

We are truly honored to support this essential work, and look forward to continuing our relationships with both organizations. 

What We Learned/Some Reflections 

Some thoughts from the Foundation members who participated on this Committee:

“Because members of our committee are members of the community we were awarding the grants to, we could rely on their expert knowledge about the possible grantees. They were able to provide the insight and information we needed. For me personally, this made the whole process much smoother. It also felt good not to put stress onto grantees or take away time from their work just so they can answer our questions.” – Monika March

“The stage was set – so it was easy to be open to learning, to follow the lead of trusted leaders, to listen and learn how to focus on increasing equity.” – Page Pless

“My experience as a WaWF member was centered on listening and learning in community with our Native members, a powerful model for grantmaking. I loved the energy and optimism of our group efforts.” – Susan Barley

We are incredibly grateful to the native community members who were open to working together to re-imagine this grant process and shared some reflections afterward:

“Serving on the Washington Women’s Foundation Diversity Partner Grant Committee was a successful and meaningful experience for me, both professionally and personally. I learned a great deal about the foundation’s legacy and evolution. I’m proud to be associated with a female-led organization seeking to embrace the complexity of Northwest Native communities. It was an honor to participate in the decision making process and I’m thrilled with what we’ve accomplished. In the ways of my people I raise my hands to you in respect and gratitude.” –Damara Jacobs, Squamish Nation

“There are several processes in place to move money, even in small amounts, to the organizations that need it most. Several boards, policies, people, granting strategies, and staff may create barriers. By assembling a team of community members who have established relationships and understanding of community needs many of these processes are by-passed, creating an efficient way to move money that benefits all. Practicing new strategies does not violate any laws, establishes trust and shifts the power to the community.” – Jessica Houseman-Whitehawk, Whitehawk Strategies, President/ Founder Ttáwaxt Birth Justice Center

As you can see, this was a powerful experience for WA Women’s Fdn members, and an opportunity to re-think grantmaking and implement a more equitable model with the valuable insight of our native community members. We learned that in order to re-imagine a more equitable grantmaking process, we needed to be truly responsive to recommendations and flexible in our structure. If our goal as grantmakers is to partner with nonprofit organizations and support their work, we need to be open to suggestions and quickly implement changes that reflect our values. Our experiment in participatory grantmaking allowed us the valuable opportunity to put our values into action, to share power, and be in community.  

1 response to “Experimenting with Participatory Grantmaking: Partner Grant Reflection

  1. Thank you for sharing this great learning experience and to WaWF for creating this opportunity for participatory grant-making and the native community members for your willingness to experiment with us on this journey. I will be interested to see how this will impact our future grant-making processes.

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