A Participatory Grantmaking Initiative Grows in Brooklyn

 Colin D. Young/Shutterstock

 Colin D. Young/Shutterstock

New examples of participatory grantmaking keep popping up, lately. More funders, it seems, have gotten the message that the top-down operations of foundations often replicate the same unequal power dynamics in society that grantmakers say they want to address. There's also growing interest among funders in listening more closely to the "ultimate end beneficiaries" of philanthropic dollars as a way to achieve greater impact. 

Which does seem to make sense. If you want to help people, ask them what they need—and then actually listen to what they say. 

We're following one example of participatory grantmaking in Brooklyn. A few years ago, the Brooklyn Community Foundation created an initiative called Neighborhood Strength in Crown Heights, which sought "to create a new model for neighborhood grantmaking that positions residents as key decision makers in local investments."

Last fall, some 130 residents took part in sessions aimed at identifying key community concerns. After that, a 17-member Crown Heights Advisory Council made up of local stakeholders reviewed the input from these sessions and then zeroed in on one main concern that was voiced: "The creation or enhancement of inclusive public spaces that deepen community engagement, strengthen cross-cultural relationships, and provide more opportunities for residents to continue addressing shared challenges together."

This is an area we've been writing about lately at IP, one that's attracted the interest of funders who invest in cities—but want to ensure that urban areas remain inclusive as they change. It's not surprising that public spaces are also on the minds of residents in Crown Heights.


After deciding to address this priority, BCF put out an open RFP. And last week, it announced a set of grants to local groups in Crown Heights that are doing different kinds of work to strengthen shared public spaces, including creating community gardens and mounting cultural events. 

These grants are pretty modest, and together, only add up to $100,000. But at a time when philanthropy is under growing pressure to listen better and be more responsive, it's worth paying attention to what BCF is up to. (Just like we've been paying attention to similar efforts, like the On the Table Initiative that the Chicago Community Trust developed, and which the Knight Foundation is now replicating in 10 other communities.)

Related: How Knight Money is Taking a Participatory Grantmaking Effort To a Whole New Level

Brooklyn Community Foundation's president and CEO, Cecilia Clarke, had this to say about why BCF has gotten behind participatory grantmaking:

The Neighborhood Strength initiative embodies our belief that those who are closest to the challenges are closest to the solutions. Through this work in Crown Heights, we are developing a new model for how foundations partner with communities by putting grantmaking decisions in the hands of residents—the real experts about our communities. This is not easy grantmaking, but it has the greatest potential to be long lasting and transformational because all involved are deeply committed to the outcomes.

Before you gulp the Kool-Aid here, though, bear in mind that there are plenty of skeptics of participatory grantmaking—not that they tend to speak up much. A main argument for an elite model of grantmaking is that it's more likely to identify key leverage points to create change and deploy scarce philanthropic dollars in the most strategic ways. If participatory grantmaking does gain momentum, it will be interesting to watch for public pushback along these lines.

Regardless, while we're on the topic of the Brooklyn Community Foundation, we should also mention that this local funder has mainly focused on two big issues, lately: racial justice and immigrant rights. As a direct response to Trump’s travel ban, BCF launched its Immigrant Rights Fund and awarded at least $95,000 in grants to eight local nonprofits earlier this year. 

A few week ago, BCF committed another $72,500 in grants through this fund to protect Brooklyn’s immigrant families from deportation and criminalization.

Topics of interest have included legal assistance, community safety, social services, advocacy, organizing, and leadership development. In the most recent giving round, BCF focused on reducing the risks of deportation to keep children and parents together. This is a major concern among families in Brooklyn right now. 

The foundation awarded so-called "sustained response" grants of $20,000 to the Sanctuary Families Project at the Center for Family Life and Faith in New York. It gave long-term-approach grants of $10,000 each to the New Sanctuary Coalition and Safe Horizon’s Immigration Law Project. Looking ahead, the foundation has issued a “Request for Conversations” for immigrant-serving organizations working in the fields of community organizing, safety, mental health services and legal services. Sustained response grants are between $10,000 and $25,000.

Meanwhile, BCF’s "Action Fund" grants are considerably smaller (up to $2,500) but target civil resistance and organizing efforts. BCF gave five $2,500 grants of this type to the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, OCA-NY Asian Pacific American Advocates, the New American Leaders Project, Bangladeshi American Community Development and Youth Services, and New York Communities for Change. Action Fund grants can be requested at any time of the year and often fund community building, public education, action planning and event logistics.

Overall, BCF has committed at least $1 million to support local immigrant rights groups over the next four years. Estimates put the number of undocumented Brooklynites at about 172,000, making it the ninth-largest place in the country for undocumented residents.

BCF's Cecilia Clarke made the following statement about the latest grants for immigrants:

Brooklyn is showing the rest of the country what strength and unity look like in the face of division and injustice. Our borough’s nonprofits, religious institutions, community organizations, and resident advocates are coming together in inspiring and effective ways to protect and provide sanctuary for immigrant families—who are such a vital part of our borough and our neighborhoods. These new grants bolster their critical work, and are a strong statement from our donors that we stand together against injustice.