Opening day of the Tar Kura grantmaking program in Freetown, Sierra Leone, with panelists, grantees, and staff from Purposeful and the Fund for Global Human Rights. Photo credit: Nyangah Rogers-Wright
Opening day of the Tar Kura grantmaking program in Freetown, Sierra Leone, with panelists, grantees, and staff from Purposeful and the Fund for Global Human Rights. Photo credit: Nyangah Rogers-Wright

Despite ongoing efforts, global philanthropy remains largely an elitist, top-down process: Foundation boards and staff, usually based in the Global North, make funding decisions that affect people in the Global South.

That colonial model, however, is starting to change. In recent years, there has been a concerted push to make philanthropy more democratic, responsive and inclusive by shifting power to the affected communities and constituencies that we seek to serve.

While we firmly believe in the need to democratize philanthropy, donors and funders must also be realistic. Instead of shifting power, we believe that the philanthropic community must acknowledge and own its power and privilege while actively and consciously sharing that power.

One exciting way to share power is through participatory grantmaking—the practice of ceding grantmaking power to affected community members and constituencies.

In 2019, our two organizations—the Fund for Global Human Rights and the African-rooted feminist hub Purposeful—partnered together to pilot a participatory grantmaking initiative with youth in Sierra Leone. We called our program Tar Kura—which means “new fire” in three local languages.

Sharing power through participatory grantmaking is especially relevant to children and young people, who are often excluded from decision-making. We hoped that by directly involving them in key decisions that affect their lives, we could promote youth leadership and amplify the voices of young people.

Following an open and participatory application process, the Fund and Purposeful selected 10 young people from diverse backgrounds to make up the Tar Kura panel. That panel decided the funding criteria and put out an open call for proposals to youth groups. Out of more than 100 applications, Purposeful helped the youth panel shortlist 25 applications from this list, conduct site visits to all finalists, and ultimately select 10 youth groups to receive funding.

The youth panelists selected groups and projects that addressed pressing issues facing children and young people, including the fight against sexual violence and gender discrimination, promoting youth leadership, and building young people’s skills and livelihoods. Young people were involved the entire way—from helping to define the ways we measured success, to participating in an external evaluation at the end.

We had initially framed our participatory initiative as a way to shift power. But even in participatory grantmaking, it was clear that foundation staff and boards continue to play a key role in setting the initial parameters and scope of the process. What emerged throughout the process was actually an essential model for sharing—rather than shifting—power.

As institutional partners, Purposeful and the Fund worked closely with the youth participants. In addition to providing grant resources, we helped youth panelists and grantees identify and support learning and networking opportunities to ensure that young people have the information and skills needed to participate fully. And throughout the process, we learned to be active learning and listening partners with children and young people.

We learned, too, that participatory grantmaking comes with challenges.

The process to ensure genuine and effective participation and power sharing can be time consuming for both staff and volunteer participatory panel members. It is also costly due to the logistics involved in setting up and bringing people together. We believe, however, that spending the time and money is worth it—the process of facilitating learning and networking is as important as the grantmaking for everyone involved.

Another challenge is the implied competition for limited resources. If not addressed thoughtfully, this can undermine the cohesion of the entire movement.

In the case of Tar Kura, the mismatch between the level of interest and the available resources posed a real challenge—over 130 groups applied for only 10 grants. Many of the unsuccessful applicants presented strong proposals. This inherent tension has led us to explore other ways to support these groups beyond providing funding.

Participatory grantmaking also raises the question of sustainability. With no guarantee of follow-up grants for participants, how can we build an ecosystem of grantmakers willing to provide flexible, long-term support to youth and child-led groups?

As organizations committed to resourcing young people for the long term, this is a question that we are reflecting on and seeking to address. As a first step, we are providing follow-up grants to the current cohort of youth grantees while taking on new ones. We are also exploring ways of engaging young people who are not successful in the application process, including providing more opportunities for learning and networking.

Notwithstanding these challenges, our experience with this initiative reinforced our belief that involving affected communities in grantmaking is critically important. It brings to the table voices and perspectives that are often ignored in the decision-making process.

Our model of participatory grantmaking aimed to share power with young people by ceding decisions on who and what to fund. By doing so, we were better able to recognize the unequal power relationships inherent in philanthropy and make a conscious effort to rebalance and share that power.

For funders and activists, this model of grantmaking allows us to learn from and better align our grantmaking with the needs and aspirations of the communities we work with. It also helps us reach new groups that are often off the radar of traditional grantmakers.

As funders, we must acknowledge the benefits and limitations of participatory grantmaking and embrace its potential. We believe that this approach presents a real chance to rebalance and share power with the people we seek to serve.

Chernor Bah, co-founder and co-CEO of Purposeful, is a feminist activist who has dedicated his life to building the power and amplifying the voices of girls and young people across the globe and in his beloved Sierra Leone.

John M. Kabia is program director for children and youth rights at the Fund for Global Human Rights. Until recently, he served as program officer for thematic initiatives.