Lost in participation? Why and how meaningful community participation is at the heart of community philanthropy

16 Mar 2022


What might a new local funding mechanism in Somalia, a feminist fund in Poland and a centenarian community foundation in Buffalo, New York have in common? Geography, definitely not. Nor socio-economic or cultural contexts. It is that they all see community participation as being at the very core of their work and appreciate that participative processes can help build the kind of trust and strong relationships that drive change. They believe that it is processes, not outcomes that count, and understand that shifting decision-making power to communities lays the groundwork for future successes. While grantmaking is a useful tool, they recognize that grants don’t change systems – people who feel seen and heard do.

But “participation” is one of those words that suffers from overuse in philanthropy and development. So much that it may have even lost meaning. In December 2021, the GFCF brought together the FemFund and Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo in a 90-minute discussion (recording below) to dig deeper into “participation” and to explore two questions: 1) What does participation look and feel like to them? 2) Why does taking the time to build shared ownership from the bottom-up make all the difference in their work? The emerging Somali Fund – now known as the Bulsho Fund – was also set to participate but, unfortunately, technical difficulties prevented them from joining the discussion. For this session, it was important to set a clear definition of how participation is understood by the contributors: both in terms of building collective action in deciding and doing together, and also the participation of people in spaces which are not normally accessible to them.

In Poland, the FemFund was established in 2017 amidst the background of an aggressive backlash against women’s rights by the conservative party in power. Justyna Frydrych – one of the co-founders of the fund – explained that the moment presented a unique opportunity to build a powerful feminist movement from the ground up, whose impact would reach beyond simply resisting the current backlash against human rights. The FemFund has two main areas of work, both of which are carefully built around community participation: grantmaking; and, resource mobilization to support Poland’s feminist movement.

FemFund’s participatory model for grantmaking enables them to practice out-loud their core principles with their partners and feminist activist allies: mutual trust; fair access to resources; changing power relations; collective decision-making; horizontal responsibility; trust in movement-building work; and, the importance of developing close relationships with partners. FemFund does not make the decisions on where their grantmaking funds go – this is done by the grassroots activists and feminist organizations they work with. FemFund’s role, instead, has been a supportive one: embedding radical inclusiveness and attentiveness in their work, while embracing constant learning along the way (FemFund works with a willingness to try new things and make mistakes).

In terms of resource mobilization, FemFund has an ambitious goal of being fully independent of external donor funding within the next seven years. To achieve this, they have been building up their local resource mobilization efforts and campaigns since their establishment. They now count more than 200 individuals and groups that donate to them monthly. The more visible they are in their communications and outreach efforts, the stronger the solidarity bonds between the groups that they support, and the more willingness there is from activists and others to support the movement. FemFund grant recipients are not just grantees, they also give back to the fund as donors, ensuring a cyclical bond that strengthens Poland’s feminist movement, and builds collective ownership of the FemFund itself. This is a vital piece of the participation puzzle for FemFund.

Across the Atlantic in Buffalo, New York, the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo works in the third-largest poor city in the United States, with a population of over 250,000 people. The foundation works with the humble recognition that the root causes of the entrenched issues it seeks to address are too big for any one organization or government entity to tackle alone. According to Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker, Executive Director of the foundation and board member of the GFCF, the role of the foundation is one of convener. It aims to bring together all relevant stakeholders, and works through a race equity lens that centres the voices of residents with lived experience of the issues the foundation seeks to address. The African proverb “He who wears the shoes knows where it pinches” is a core principle for the foundation as it works with, and learns from, residents concerning the issues that are important to them.

The foundation works through what Clotilde describes as the “power of process”, a process that builds trust through working in proximity with stakeholders over several years that allows for the “currency of social change” to be built – that is, the close relationships with residents and stakeholders. The power of process is a five-step approach. It involves convening key stakeholders, mapping an identified challenge (and the systems that relate to it) with the knowledge of those connected to the issue, collectively agreeing on shared goals, developing action plans, and finally learning from the action taken. This intentional process allows for critical space-making that brings people together to do work that is often delicate and difficult.

On the eve of the foundation’s 90th anniversary in 2009, the board undertook a reflective process that revealed that while the foundation had spent the last 89 years growing its assets so that they could continue to do more good in the community, the micro-indicators in the community had continued to point in the direction of a decreasing quality of life for Buffalo residents. This led to the board shifting its paradigm from growing assets (which at the time were US $150 million) to growing impact, showing value for the work they were doing. They began to name and commit to the goals they were going to focus on. The foundation realized that one of the most important assets they had was not money, but time – and this became critical in how they now work with their networks of influence and encouraged community participation to activate change. By focusing on growing impact, they became more relevant and visible to the community, which in turn led to further growing their financial assets. Today, the foundation has $750 million, illustrating that people wanted to be part of the process of collectively building bold and transformative ideas.


Key takeaways from the session for effective participatory approaches or models

  • Building trust ought to be the central focus of all work done, and this is long-term work that involves both reflecting inwards and outwards to ensure that the right people are in the right rooms.
  • No one method or tool can answer all challenges because it depends on the local context. The need to be innovative, flexible and willing to take big risks is paramount.
  • Community members must see themselves as part of a process, implying that barriers to participation be removed as much as possible. This could mean ensuring that facilitators for meetings come from the community itself (peers or trusted ambassadors), or holding meetings in central locations with food and childcare so families can be involved.
  • The hard work lies in the consistent outreach and communication to those groups who do not feel they can participate – constantly looking out for those who are not in the room and figuring out ways to reach and involve them.
  • Levelling power dynamics means letting the community make the decisions.
  • Even when an organization has wide participation of activists and/or marginalized groups together, they can often still default to choosing the “safest” initiative to support or action to take. It is important to constantly strive to create safe spaces where diverse opinions can be shared and more risk-taking is done. The role for a convenor is to encourage and grow support for radical initiatives.
  • There is a limit to participatory grantmaking models because some groups, though involved, may not get to participate in the whole process; they may only be able to understand and see the small part they played. Greater appreciation and understanding of the many small and big parts of this model are needed.
  • In repairing damage caused by innocent mistakes of side-lining the very communities an organization works in, it is important to work through intermediaries that come from that community, i.e. it should not be the foundation leading the work but letting others lead first, being the “servant leader.”
  • Boards have an important role to play in terms of accountability and guiding change, but their participation in community-led change must be in a supporting and facilitating role, rather than a controlling one.
  • Relationships with donors should start from a place of shared goals and honesty. It is important to ask bold questions of donors, so that they understand the system they are a part of. Encourage understanding of why taking the time to get participation right matters.
  • Time and people are an organization’s greatest assets, rather than the money in the bank.


About this webinar series

The GFCF’s grantmaking in 2020, 2021 and 2022 has supported our community philanthropy partners in their local responses to COVID-19, both in the short and longer term. Surveys of grant partners revealed clear commonalities across our global network in the issues these organizations were facing. Over 2021, we offered a series of partner-led and organized learning and sharing sessions to delve into these topics further. See write-ups of the other sessions on building local philanthropy against the backdrop of COVID-19, engaging marginalized and minority groupslocalism, livelihoods and circular economies and getting it right with corporate philanthropy.

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