A Local Foundation Embraces Participatory Grantmaking in a Big Way

What started as a “listening tour” led by a new foundation president has now become an ambitious embrace of participatory grantmaking, a growing practice in philanthropy in which a community served is given the power to make funding decisions.

The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, under former Obama administration official Jay Williams, set out listening to the 29 towns in the region it supports, and before it was even over, picked up on an all-too-familiar refrain:

“After 16 stops meeting residents from 23 towns, one common theme emerged; residents understand the challenges they face in their communities, but are often constrained by a lack of resources,” the program’s announcement stated. 

That communities best know how to solve their own problems is an idea shared by practitioners of participatory grantmaking, which seeks to make philanthropy more inclusive and responsive, while disrupting power imbalances in the sector. The Hartford Foundation, which has been around for over 90 years, is establishing a whopping 29 new funds totaling $2.9 million, one to be controlled by each town the foundation serves in the Hartford region.

Related: Power in Letting Go: How Participatory Grantmakers Are Democratizing Philanthropy

Here’s how it will work: Starting in spring of next year, 29 Greater Together Community Funds will receive $100,000, with $50,000 to be disbursed up front, and another $50,000 that will be endowed for future grantmaking. Community donors will also be able to contribute directly to each fund. 

In the meantime, the foundation will work with each town to establish an inclusive and representative advisory committee that will control each fund. Each committee will identify needs and develop their own grantmaking processes, while the foundation advises as needed. 

“The purpose of the Greater Together Community Funds is to support communities as they identify and address the unique needs in their own towns,” the announcement says. The foundation has also supported a program called Hartford Decides, a participatory budgeting initiative in the City of Hartford.

The decision has been in the works for a while now, but the announcement Thursday was timely. Participatory grantmaking, while not a new practice, has been surfacing more in the mainstream lately, including a new GrantCraft guide recently released by Foundation Center. The practice is seen by supporters as a way to do better grantmaking by relying on those with lived experience in complex societal problems. It’s also a way to take on growing concerns about philanthropy as a plutocratic institution in which wealthy, often largely white institutions hold decision-making power over communities they serve.

The Hartford Foundation’s decision is an impressive and welcome move, according to Cynthia Gibson, author of the GrantCraft report and longtime consultant on participatory grantmaking:

The scope and depth of this participatory grantmaking initiative is truly inspiring and will be a huge contribution to the field, especially if there's an evaluation component to it that assesses not only results but also the degree to which residents felt a sense of agency and the trust needed to continue this work well into the future.

Participatory grantmaking, as powerful as it can be, is definitely challenging to get right, and its results can be hard to quantify. Part of what’s so impressive about the Hartford Foundation’s decision is the sheer number of funds and grantmaking processes that need to be established, which will almost certainly be a messy and labor-intensive process. 

The funds make up a modest dollar amount for the foundation, which granted $34.5 million in 2017, but the concept of establishing one fund for every town it supports makes an admirable statement about the way the foundation is aiming to distribute power. 

And at least within this initiative, it also represents a shift in what the foundation sees as its job—toward facilitation and support, rather than choosing priorities and strategies.

This is definitely an effort to watch.