2020 Women’s March in amsterdam, where participatory grantmaker Mama Cash is headquartered. ElenaBaryshnikova/shutterstock
2020 Women’s March in amsterdam, where participatory grantmaker Mama Cash is headquartered. ElenaBaryshnikova/shutterstock

A couple of months ago, I spoke with Ben Wrobel and Meg Massey, authors of “Letting Go: How Philanthropists and Impact Investors Can Do More Good by Giving Up Control.” Our conversation focused on the growing popularity of participatory grantmaking, a practice in which funding leaders outsource grantmaking decisions to community members.

Wrobel subsequently connected me with two Amsterdam-based participatory grantmaking leaders to get a deeper dive into their work. The first was Paul-Gilbert Colletaz, a coordinator at the Red Umbrella Fund, the first global fund guided by and for sex workers. You can read the highlights from our chat here. The second was Coco Jervis, grants manager at Mama Cash, the international women’s grantmaker that incubated the Red Umbrella Fund.

One of the key points from Wrobel and Massey’s book is that there is no “right” way to embrace participatory grantmaking. Each funder adopts the practice according to its leaders’ unique risk appetite. For instance, the Red Umbrella Fund was launched in 2012 exclusively as a participatory grantmaker, whereas the MacArthur Foundation has taken a more incremental approach, applying participatory practices to a segment of its broader portfolio.

Mama Cash, which awarded 229 grants totaling approximately $6.6 million in 2020, is an especially instructive case study because its leadership fast-tracked its adoption across a compressed two-year span.

Founded in 1983, the funder launched its first pilot program in 2018, before committing to a fully participatory model a year later. For the next 18 months, Jervis and her team interviewed leading practitioners, engaged with community members, and prepared staff for a future in which they no longer decide who gets funding. As of this year, Mama Cash is the world’s “largest fully participatory grantmaker,” according to Wrobel and Massey.

Jervis acknowledges that the term “participatory grantmaking” may mean different things to different audiences. But for Mama Cash, it’s a tool to “disrupt the secretive and insular philanthropic power dynamic of controlling who gets funded by leaving it up to the communities to help us set our priorities and by giving power to the community to choose where to redistribute funding.”

The road to participatory grantmaking

Mama Cash was founded in the Netherlands by feminist activists who were frustrated by grantmakers’ tepid support for women’s issues. An homage to “Mama Cass” Elliot, the singer of the Mamas and the Papas, Mama Cash grew into one of the most influential funders of women’s rights causes globally, allocating over $70 million to more than 6,000 organizations since its inception.

When the fund launched, activists made the funding decisions. As the fund grew and donors became more vocal and involved, hired staff assumed more decision-making authority, while activists took on an advisory role. “There’s not necessarily a huge pool of institutions and governments willing to fund feminist funds,” Jervis told Massey and Wrobel. “So we’ve tried to be transparent about our grants, but we have not necessarily been participatory.”

Then Mama Cash incubated the Red Umbrella Fund. Impressed with how the fund’s participatory approach worked, Mama Cash’s leaders decided to join the participatory donor collaborative With and For Girls Collective. In 2018, Mama Cash piloted the Spark Fund, in which a rotating committee of activists directed support for feminist initiatives in the Netherlands. It also launched the Solidarity Fund, in which leaders from global women’s funds participated in every stage of the grantmaking process, including designing the fund, applying for funding, and ultimately reviewing and selecting the grantees.

Buoyed by the success of its pilot funds, Mama Cash’s leaders decided to take the plunge and fully transition to a participatory model, thus kicking off what Jervis called “an almost two-year process of research, exploration, and design learning from a variety of stakeholders.”

“There was no existing model”

Two years may sound like a long time to conduct due diligence, but Jervis told me it was necessary given Mama Cash’s global reach and expansive grantmaking portfolio, which includes advancing reproductive rights, preventing sexual abuse and combating hate crimes.

“There was no existing model or template for us to follow,” she said, “leaving us to be creative and innovative according to our possibilities and boldest dreams, while at the same time humbly recognizing that there was, and is, so much for us to learn.”

Jervis and her team spoke with 11 participatory funders, including reps from the With and For Girls Collective, and external stakeholders—long-term grantee partners, activist advisors, board members and allies—about their ideas, hopes and concerns. Leaders also spent “a lot of time having internal and external discussions and deliberations to socialize the values of power-sharing and transparency across the organization, so that the move to become more participatory was collectively held,” Jervis said.

Jervis told me she and her team have been inspired by participatory grantmaking trailblazers like the Red Umbrella Fund, the International Trans Fund, UHAI, the Disability Rights Fund and FRIDA: The Young Feminist Fund.

In November 2020, Mama Cash announced its plans for a full transition to participatory grantmaking by 2021. “We have long worked from a commitment to forge strong and inclusive partnerships with those who share our vision and to remaining transparent with them in the process,” its press release read. “Becoming a participatory grantmaker will enable us to embed these values in the process of grantmaking itself, sharing power and responsibility with the groups for whom the grants are intended.”

A two-step process

As a result of its extensive due diligence, leaders implemented what Jervis called a “two-step process” for participatory grantmaking. In the first step, applicants provide input and guidance on which issues Mama Cash should prioritize. “This model facilitates both a wide range of activists setting our grantmaking priorities each year, so that we can stay alert and responsive to changing contexts and needs of various types of feminist actors and movements,” Jervis said.

In the second step, a committee composed of individuals reflecting the communities Mama Cash aims to serve makes the final grantmaking decisions. This committee consists of 11 individuals who are former grantees or advisory members from diverse backgrounds and geographies.

Mama Cash’s model should assuage leaders’ fears that by outsourcing decision-making to an external body, participatory grantmaking will leave them without a job. Jervis said that Mama Cash leaders continue to set the overall criteria for eligibility in line with its organizational vision and mission, while staff pre-screen applications to ensure the committee only reviews eligible groups. Staff also continue to manage the relationships with all grantees.

In my chat with “Letting Go” co-author Massey, she noted that Mama Cash’s model changed the roles of internal staff so they became “almost like guidance counselors with the grantees, which is different than checking off boxes. I personally think that’s a much more authentic way to approach pressing social issues.”

Lessons learned

Jervis offered some advice for funders considering a participatory model. First, funders should “start small and build up.” By rolling out two smaller pilot funds, Jervis and her team gained the confidence and experience to transition the remainder of its grantmaking portfolio to a participatory model.

Funders should also be willing to experiment. “In order to become a participatory grantmaker,” Jervis told me, “an organization needs to increase its risk appetite, as we are handing over decision-making about funding to the community, which is seen as counterintuitive in the philanthropic sector.”

Jervis told me that making this shift was not a linear process, nor was it an easy one. It required additional time, resources and strong leadership. The transition also required stakeholders to be willing to grow, “by learning on-the-go, making mistakes and course-correcting each step of the way,” she said.

In addition, Jervis encourages funders to share what they have learned. “We have received a great deal of interest and enthusiasm by our community and the other funders about our efforts to openly and transparently share our experiences, and particularly lessons learned, about our participatory grantmaking transition over the last couple of months,” she said. “We hope that sharing our journey will spur more funders to consider exploring or implementing participatory approaches as well—as a mechanism to enable more equitable partnerships.”

(In a similar vein, Red Umbrella’s Colletaz encouraged funders to join the Participatory Grantmakers Community of Practice, a site where practitioners can share tips and best practices.)

Lastly, Jervis told me that funders should embark on their participatory grantmaking journey with a clear idea of what the practice can accomplish. “Our evaluation method is whether participatory processes are a tool that advances decolonization and justice and whether it creates more transparency and accountability toward the movements and communities that we aim to support,” she said.

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