A Major K-12 Funder Takes the Participatory Grantmaking Plunge

This blog was originally published by Inside Philanthropy on May 25, 2021 and can be found on their website here.

A Major K-12 Funder Takes the Participatory Grantmaking Plunge

By Connie Matthiessen | May 25, 2021

Participatory grantmaking: It isn’t a term that rolls off the tongue, and yet many people in the philanthropy world are talking about it these days. It describes the process of including community members in grantmaking decisions. As GrantCraft put it in a 2018 report, “participatory grantmaking cedes decision-making power about funding—including the strategy and criteria behind those decisions—to the very communities that funders aim to serve.”

Participatory grantmaking isn’t a new idea, but growing awareness of inequity and racial injustice have raised its visibility in recent years, as IP reported in an in-depth article last year. A new book, “Letting Go: How Philanthropists and Impact Investors Can Do More Good By Giving Up Control,” makes the case for participatory grantmaking, as IP recently reported.

Now, a major education funder is taking the participatory grantmaking plunge. When the NewSchools Venture Fund rolled out its new Racial Equity funding opportunity, President Frances Messano announced that community members would be guiding the selection process. “For the first time, we’re ceding power,” Messano wrote in a blog post. “Instead of a traditional grantmaking approach which centers funders, our strategies, ways of seeing the world and selection criteria, parents, students and education innovators of color will be the decision makers. They—not us—will determine how to allocate the funds in this portfolio.”

Dream capital 

The new funding opportunity marks several firsts for NewSchools, which is supported by several major K-12 funders, including the Walton Family Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Gates Foundation. Racial justice has always been a priority for the organization, but it recently announced Racial Equity as a separate investment area, and simultaneously appointed Messano, a woman of color, president, as IP previously reported. The new initiative is NewSchools’ first within the Racial Equity investment area. According to the announcement, NewSchools “will provide $1.5 million in ‘dream capital’ to innovators of color with bold ideas to advance racial equity in education.”

Messano explained that NewSchools made the Racial Equity initiative “intentionally broad” to encourage fresh, out-of-the-box thinking: “Rather than narrowly define the parameters of what we will or won’t fund (an approach that often constrains innovation), we are open to supporting a range of ideas as long as it is outside one of our other investment areas. There are brilliant solutions borne from the lived experiences of people of color, and we believe these ideas will help us get closer to a more just and equitable education system.” Half the allocated funds will go to Black educator leaders.

Creating a bigger tent

What makes NewSchools’ new initiative particularly noteworthy is its participatory approach. NewSchools has created a council of 16 people, including students, parents and education leaders of color from around the U.S. The council will be in charge of developing the investment criteria, reviewing applications and allocating funds.

As Frances Messano told IP earlier this year, “We believe we need to expand our tent in education, where sometimes, we can have a little bit of an echo chamber in that we’re talking to people with the same ideas… We know we can benefit from those who are more proximate to the issues themselves.”

The council won’t be operating in a vacuum: NewSchools will provide ongoing support, along with parameters within which the council will work. But the council will hold the decision-making power in the grantmaking process, a distinct difference between, for example, soliciting feedback or holding listening sessions. The council has final word on who receives funding and, because of the size of the grants involved, does not need board approval. The only exception is that the president has the power to veto a grant if it isn’t in line with the fund’s 501(c)(3) mission and eligibility criteria. According to NewSchools, they don’t imagine that being an issue, given the nature of the process they are designing for the lead-up to the application review.

As its first foray into this new territory, NewSchools considers the initiative a learning opportunity that will identify best practices and information on how to improve the process going forward.

Disrupting philanthropy

Process issues in philanthropy typically don’t get as much attention as what’s getting funded and why, but participatory grantmaking, if widely adopted, could shake up the staid world of philanthropy. As the GrantCraft report observed: “The bottom line: Participatory grantmaking is a lever for disrupting and democratizing philanthropy.”

It’s also no small commitment. In a 2017 Ford Foundation report, consultant Cynthia Gibson underscored the challenges of adopting a participatory grantmaking approach: “Moving this kind of change—within organizations and across the field—requires boatloads of sweat equity, research, testing, and intellectually and operationally rigorous field-building.”

But some believe participatory grantmaking is less of a choice than an obligation—and a way for philanthropy to act on the democratic principles it champions. In a recent article in Nonprofit Quarterly, Josh Lerner, who heads People Powered, urged philanthropy to make, “a deeper investment in participatory grantmaking, moving beyond information sharing and consultation. Being pro-democracy requires more than poetic blog posts and earnest listening sessions. Participation without power is tokenism. It’s time for funders to share real power over real decisions to support democracy.”

Is participatory grantmaking the wave of the philanthropic future? According to NewSchools President Frances Messano, we’re not there yet. “Foundations are starting to think about how they might engage a broader set of community members to influence their grantmaking. We’re seeing increased comfort from funders in getting input and feedback from proximate leaders to inform their strategies. However, we haven’t seen as many funders embrace participatory grantmaking because it cedes all power and decision-making to those outside of the institution. We are far from seeing participatory grantmaking as the norm or standard.”

Note: The deadline to apply for the Racial Equity Funding Opportunity was June 4, 2021 at 11:59pm PDT