In July 2017, former Obama administration official Jay Williams became the president of the Hartford Foundation of Public Giving, a community foundation that serves 29 towns across central Connecticut. The next year, Williams, who previously served as the mayor of Youngstown, Ohio, embarked on a listening tour to gauge the concerns and needs of his new constituencies.

A common theme quickly emerged. Residents “were passionate about the things that were going on in their towns and had thought extensively about solutions,” said Wanda Correa, the foundation’s senior community impact officer. “The one thing they didn’t have were resources—financial resources and other ways of bringing folks together to decide on what are the things that need to happen.”

In response, the foundation announced the Greater Together Community Funds in 2018. The program established 29 funds, one for each town the foundation serves, to be overseen by community-led “advisory committees” that design their own unique grantmaking processes. The foundation provided each committee with $50,000 for immediate grantmaking and $50,000 to seed an endowed fund. Hartford Foundation staff assumed an advisory role, providing committee members with guidance on topics such as inclusive group practices, participatory decision-making, and grantmaking.

At the time, IP’s Tate Williams noted that the program was the latest example of a funder turning to participatory grantmaking to “make philanthropy more inclusive and responsive, while disrupting power imbalances in the sector.”

Fast-forward to late June. After two years of close collaboration with residents and advisory committees, the foundation announced that seven towns had made a total of 40 inaugural grants in areas like education, public safety, and health and food security, with many more grants from other funds to follow.

“The grant dollars are going out to benefit residents,” Correa said. “But just as important is how these advisory committees manage an inclusive process that provides an opportunity to have all voices be heard and give them decision-making about where dollars can go.”

An expansive approach

There are several things that make this foundation’s program unique. First, it’s important to recognize the breadth of the program. While community foundations administer a portfolio of dedicated funds, few have gone all-in on participatory grantmaking across a diverse demographic and geographic base that includes cities, rural areas and sprawling suburban enclaves.

Williams picked up on this point in 2018, writing, “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.” (As we’ll see, it was an astute observation.)

But the specter of arduous work doesn’t fully explain many funders’ reluctance to adopt participatory grantmaking practices. At a more fundamental level, they simply aren’t keen on outsourcing their primary responsibility—deciding who gets the money—to outside parties. This explains why institutional funders’ participatory grantmaking efforts tend to be rolled out in an incremental or piecemeal fashion.

The Hartford Foundation developed its program against this backdrop. Its leaders formed a workgroup consisting of individuals from across the organization, including administration, development, learning and evaluation, and communications. “This really had to be something that we could all embrace internally,” Correa said.

Workgroup members conducted an extensive literature review, spoke with colleagues across the country, and solicited feedback from community members and experts like Cynthia Gibson, who helped design one of the first national participatory grantmaking initiatives with the Case Foundation.

The workgroup eventually zeroed in on three goals: “To support the community in taking ownership around the needs in their towns, encourage broad and inclusive civic engagement, and anchor the Hartford Foundation in each town.” Leaders also decided the program should be primarily focused on grantmaking, rather than operated as a vehicle “to get people motivated to raise dollars,” Correa said. The board agreed and committed $2.9 million to the effort.

Key operational details

With its financial commitment in hand, workgroup leaders turned their attention to a set of critical operational decisions.

“So we’ve got $2.9 million,” Correa said. “How do we divide that?” Or to reframe this question in more practical terms, should the city of Hartford (population 123,088) receive more funding than the town of Marlborough (population 6,358)? The group debated this question and decided that all 29 towns would get $100,000. “We thought it was very important to keep this across-the-board equitable in terms of the amount of money,” Correa said.

Next, workgroup members had to decide how to populate each of the 29 towns’ advisory committees. Correa said that the team was reluctant to appoint members, as it would give the impression that the foundation was imposing its will on each town. That said, “we had to start somewhere.”

The foundation launched kick-off meetings in the fall of 2019 to introduce the community funds to residents and hold what Correa called “breakout sessions where individuals who were interested in being on town selection committees could begin mapping out their work.”

When the pandemic hit, these meetings moved online. “We have been able to see folks, despite COVID, come to a place of understanding of why this work is so important to them,” Correa said. Selection committee volunteers subsequently identified, interviewed, and chose advisory committee members to administer each town fund.

Foundation leaders also established eligibility requirements for each committee member. For instance, they barred elected officials from serving on either committee. “We don’t have anything against elected officials and the incredible work that they do for our communities,” Correa said. “We just did not want the program to get caught up in politics.”

The work group’s deliberations around funding allocation and the composition of its committees serve as a reminder of why funders have traditionally shied away from participatory grantmaking. It takes hard work, delicate conversations with multiple constituencies, and the occasional compromise. Relinquishing control isn’t easy.

“We needed to provide guidance”

Workgroup members granted advisory committee members full authority to award grants based on whatever criteria they deemed appropriate. To support this work, the foundation provided each committee with toolkits and resources to help members allocate funding in an inclusive manner.

“Each town has its own flavor, its own culture,” Correa told me. “But we needed to provide guidance as to how do you do this. We couldn’t assume that people know how to be grantmakers. These are community volunteers who are coming from various different walks of life, different facets of life, they need to learn how to work together.”

The foundation’s approach also means that its leaders do not have ongoing communication with nonprofits seeking Greater Together funding in specific towns. Instead, the foundation directs interested nonprofit reps to their local advisory committee.

“The onus here is really on the advisory committee to think about how they do the outreach to the nonprofits within their community,” Correa said. “They are the ones who are sending out any press releases, reaching out to their stakeholders, and setting up the process of, how do we decide who gets these dollars?” (The advisory committees are also responsible for recruiting new members.)

Once an advisory committee selects grantees, the foundation checks to ensure the organization meets legal and IRS requirements. The foundation does not override a committee’s decision to fund a qualified grantee. “The committee’s decision is final,” Correa said.

Additional resources and preliminary findings

The Greater Together Community Funds website includes separate pages for each town, and they’re all at various stages of the grantmaking process. The page for the town of Ellington lists its May 2021 grantees, the Hebron page notes that letters of interest are currently under review, and the East Windsor page indicates that the fund is currently seeking advisory committee members.

All town pages include the names of advisory committee members, contact information for the fund’s liaison at the foundation, and a “donate” button for the respective fund. Individuals who want to join an advisory committee or nominate someone to a committee are encouraged to contact the foundation.

The foundation also hired a consultant to work with town liaisons to gauge each fund’s effectiveness and identify areas for improvement. The foundation published its Year One Summary Report last October and plans to publish its year two findings in the early fall. “The learning component is a core piece of this work,” Correa said. “Because when you’re talking about sharing power, it requires you to always consistently be looking at what you need to do to make changes for the better.”

As of mid-August, the fund has about 400 volunteers across its committees. Twenty-seven of the 29 towns have functioning advisory committees. The other two towns are currently in the selection committee phase.

Correa told me that the committees have been thoughtful about how they’re going to use their $50,000, plus the roughly $1,000 in annual endowed earnings. “What we’ve seen in the first round is that committees are not willing to use it all up at once,” she said. “They generally tend to go to about $25,000 for this first round of grants.”

“Folks want to give”

My chat with Correa came on the heels of interviews with other participatory grantmaking practitioners like the Red Umbrella Fund’s Paul-Gilbert Colletaz and Mama Cash’s Coco Jervis. In each conversation, I’ve been struck by unique components of each organization’s grantmaking model.

Two things stood out to me in the Hartford Foundation’s approach—leaders’ decision to endow funds in all 29 towns and the extent to which staff adopted a skill set attuned to a participatory model.

Regarding endowment funds, readers know that the pandemic disproportionately affected smaller organizations with minimal cash reserves. Beyond providing unrestricted emergency support, funders pledged to build resiliency among organizations to weather future financial shocks. By establishing $50,000 endowed funds in all 29 towns, the foundation ensures that “there would always be some amount of earnings available for town residents,” Correa said.

These funds can grow with support from residents. While the foundation didn’t initially envision each fund as a fundraising vehicle, “we have found that this is a compelling story and that folks want to give,” Correa said. Most notably, the West Hartford Together Community Fund received an anonymous donation of $100,000, which advisory committee members can earmark for immediate use or toward their endowment. Correa told me that other funds have received donations, as well. “We know that fundraising is an option that some of these advisory committees may want to take on,” she said.

Then there’s the possibility that the foundation board will supplement their initial $2.9 million investment sometime in the future. I asked Correa if this was in the cards. “That door has been left open,” she replied.

An evolving skill set

One of funders’ biggest concerns about a participatory approach is that by outsourcing decision-making, they’ll innovate themselves out of existence. After all, if someone else decides where the money goes, what are foundation leaders and staff supposed to do all day?

Meg Massey, co-author of “Letting Go: How Philanthropists and Impact Investors Can Do More Good By Giving Up Control,” told me that this is a very real concern across the funder community. Fortunately, she has found that funders that transitioned to a participatory model simply reskill to better facilitate conversations with community members. “Rather than saying, ‘You must do this to get our money,’” Massey said, staff will ask organizations questions like, “How do we move money in ways that are going to be impactful for you as a person affected by this challenge?”

Correa’s experience backs up Massey’s findings. Prior to her work with the Greater Together Community Funds, she was a senior development officer. When the board signed off on the fund, her superiors didn’t fire her (naturally). Instead, they tapped “several of us on the shoulder and said, ‘We want you to lead this effort.’”

As Correa spent more time in her new role, she found herself engaged in what she called “capacity-building with our community volunteers.” This work involves facilitating meetings, educating advisers, and navigating group dynamics, which can include difficult conversations about inclusion. “Development officers may not normally think about these things,” she told me, “but they’re essential if a funder wants to adopt a participatory program.”

Foundation staff’s responsibilities will continue to evolve as some town advisory committees pivot to fundraising. “We’ll have to ask ourselves, ‘What does this mean for us in terms of the logistical pieces of fundraising for these individual groups?’” Correa said. “That’s our next learning phase.”