Who Chooses? Shifting and Sharing Power with People Most Impacted by Philanthropy’s Decisions

Melinda Tuan

“The power in this approach is that we get to pick our own champions.”

Billy Kinney, one of the Native members of Fund for Shared Insight’s participatory grantmaking group for the “Kolea region” — an area encompassing Alaska and Hawai’i and named for a bird that migrates between the two geographies — shared this reflection at the celebratory session concluding our eight-week process to distribute $1 million to 18 groups. I was struck by his comment, because it should be evident to all of philanthropy: The people who have lived expertise, bring local knowledge, and are closest to the issues we seek to address are best positioned to choose champions for the work we do. Yet, to the contrary, it is often people like me, sitting in offices thousands of miles from the people most impacted by the systems and structures we hope to address, who decide where grant money goes and how it is spent.

That’s why it was a particular privilege to be part of Shared Insight’s participatory grantmaking initiative, started in 2020, and culminating just recently with the selection of grantees. The initiative focused on exploring power-sharing and policy work around climate change and environmental justice and had the stated goal of involving people most impacted by those issues in making decisions about the use of philanthropic resources. The members of our design and grantmaking teams brought lived experience, content and context expertise about community decision-making, and connections with local people and communities to the funding decisions. Ultimately, a majority of groups we identified had never received funding from philanthropy and would have been unlikely to receive our funding if we had followed traditional grantmaking processes.

I served as a learner and observer in the role of funder representative on our grantmaking group for the Kolea region. CC Moore from the Kellogg Foundation participated as the funder representative on a second grantmaking group that focused on the Southeastern United States, awarding an additional $1 million to nonprofits in that area.

Each regional grantmaking group was composed of eight members. In my group, I was one of only two non-Indigenous members. From September through November last year, we met weekly — in pairs, by geographic caucuses, or all together. We contributed to a group journal and participated in regular reflection exercises to get to know each other and build trust and understanding around the decisions the combined grantmaking group would go on to make. Our time working together was a profound professional and personal experience that will continue to shape my views about power, philanthropy, community, and the importance of meaningful relationships.

The conclusion of our participatory grantmaking phase coincided with the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s (CEP) release of Overlooked (Part Two): Foundation Support for Native American Leaders and Communities. The report documents the gross under-investment by mainstream, white-dominated philanthropy in Native American organizations and the experience of Native American nonprofit leaders with funders. Two key findings of the research were:

  1. Native American nonprofit leaders report having less positive experiences with their foundation funders than nonprofit leaders of other races/ethnicities. This has been the case during, as well as prior to, the pandemic.
  2. Despite the significant challenges facing Native American people, most foundations continue to overlook nonprofits that serve these communities.

Shared Insight’s Kolea Region grantmaking — $1 million to Indigenous-led and Indigenous-serving efforts to address climate justice — is a drop in the bucket compared to the philanthropic investment in Native American organizations that is warranted and needed.

However, I believe what my colleague funders and I learned in our participatory grantmaking process — where we worked to connect more deeply with Indigenous leaders and communities — made it possible for us to be part of informed and impactful funding decisions that also served to push our thinking about the purpose and practice of philanthropy overall. We hope that sharing our experience might prompt others in mainstream philanthropy to consider how the relationships they build can positively impact how and how much they give to Native groups and other historically under-invested communities.

Here are some highlights from our grantmaking:

  • To start, we partnered with Native-led organizations to select members from their community to participate in our Design Team, which decided how the funds should be spent and what recipients should be eligible. Most significantly — and surprising to the funders involved — the first order of business was moving away from language about climate change, which was considered too limiting and not consistent with how grassroots leaders describe or think about their work. The purpose statement the team created describes the focus instead as funding grassroot groups that center “traditional and/or local ecological knowledge and connection with Mother Earth.”
  • In response to the Design Team’s recommendation that our impact would be better amplified with a $1-million investment in each of the two geographies they identified, our funder collaborative doubled its grantmaking commitment to $2 million.
  • Instead of doing an open call or formal invitation for grant proposals, we sourced potential grantees through the Design Team members and additional conversations with Native-led organizations. We selected this nominations model after we were advised that it was much less burdensome for potential grantees. We let conversations unfold in a non-urgent manner, building relationships over months.
  • We communicated with potential grantees via Zoom, phone, email and/or text, depending on their preferences, offering small honoraria to appreciate their time with us, and being careful not to impose artificial urgency around our timelines.
  • We streamlined the application process down to just three questions that allowed potential grantees to describe their work and relationship to community in their own way. Groups could answer in any format, including recycling other materials they had already developed. We often met on the phone to record their answers, which were sometimes just a sentence or two long.
  • We were intentionally flexible with funding, making grants to Native groups structured in various ways, including as 501(c)(3)s, federally recognized tribes, tribes recognized only by their state, and LLCs.

As a sponsored project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Shared Insight had the luxury of that kind of funding flexibility. But if you are reading this and the other steps we took and are saying, “We could never do that at my foundation!” don’t be discouraged. There are many approaches any funder can take to support Native communities. One option is to fund intermediaries, such as First Nations Development Institute, a past Shared Insight grantee, that can channel funding to other Native entities.

But the overall takeaway here should be much broader. While we would happily recommend our participatory grantmaking process and share further details, what is key for any approach to better grantmaking is simply an openness to listening and a willingness to adjust plans based on what is heard. Critical, too, is committing to a transparent and inclusive process even, and perhaps especially, through the discomfort of exploring new grantmaking models. As CC Moore from the Kellogg Foundation said during a webinar discussion about our initiative:

It really did take a lot for me to sit back and not let the typical ways that I might approach something guide me in how the approach was being formed. […] What I learned is that there was deep trust and understanding of the context among members of the Grantmaking Group that was critical to the decisions being made.

We know from CEP’s report that mainstream philanthropy’s usual ways of working are not serving Native people. To begin to address that, we encourage funders to push beyond their comfort zones and find their own best approach to listening to and partnering with the people and communities most impacted by their decisions. Our participatory grantmaking experience shows that through meaningful connection and deep understanding, we can shift power to people with lived expertise so they can pick their own champions.

Melinda Tuan is managing director of Fund for Shared Insight. Find her on LinkedIn and find Fund for Shared Insight on Twitter at @4SharedInsight.

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