Community-led grantmaking: Collective wisdom for social change

Written by: Caitlin Duffy

Date: September 12, 2017

How can funders make their grantmaking more transparent and inclusive while tackling the unequal power dynamic in philanthropy?

With more and more conversations around equity taking place in the sector, community-led grantmaking has proven to be a powerful way to address inequity from within, and in the process, center community members who are most marginalized.

To delve into the “how” of this democratic approach, in late August NCRP co-hosted Pass the Reins: Shifting Decision-Making Power in Philanthropy with the Indie Philanthropy Initiative, Grassroots Grantmakers and GrantCraft, a service of Foundation Center. Below is a recap, along with the video recording of the entire webinar.

Four different models

Moderated by Jennifer Near, general coordinator of the Building Equity and Alignment for Impact Initiative, the webinar featured speakers from four community-led grantmaking models:

  • Maria De La Cruz, associate executive director at Headwaters Foundation for Justice
    Headwaters’ funding model places community leadership at the center of the grantmaking process, recognizing that collective impact requires collective learning and mutual investment. Minnesotans who are on the front lines of social justice are trusted to guide the foundation’s decision-making. The foundation also participates in
    The Giving Project. Its most recent cohort of 20-25 residents raised more than $200,000 over six months, which was then disbursed as two-year grants to nine organizations.
  • Theresa Trujillo, community partner for southeast Colorado at The Colorado Trust
    Through its Community Partnerships grantmaking initiative, The Colorado Trust seeks to encourage and strengthen community-led solutions and funding initiatives to advance health equity. The foundation has embraced a unique staff model by shifting from “program officers” to “community partners” to build strong partnerships in six regions across the state and help organize, encourage and empower resident-led initiatives.
  • Liane Stegmaier, vice president of communications and strategies at Brooklyn Community Foundation
    Following its innovative community engagement project, Brooklyn Insights, the Brooklyn Community Foundation launched a resident-led investment program called Neighborhood Strength to empower local changemakers in the Crown Heights neighborhood. The initiative brings together community members to identify and direct funding to solutions that target significant local challenges. The foundation hired an experienced community organizer to facilitate the process, including three visioning sessions and the creation of a 17-member advisory council.
  • Cortez Wright, activist grantmaking advisory panelist at the Third Wave Fund
    Third Wave Fund’s gender justice grantmaking approach centers young women of color, queer and trans youth of color, and allows their vision to take center stage. Its Activist Grantmaking Advisory Panel plays a major role in deciding which emerging gender justice organizations will receive long-term funding and technical assistance through the Grow Power Fund. More than 100 people from across the country applied to serve on the panel, and six were chosen and compensated for their role. In 2016, the inaugural members awarded multi-year support to six groups.

The conversation was particularly salient given the rising tide of neo-Nazism and white nationalist violence in our country. As NCRP’s chief executive Aaron Dorfman recently wrote in response to the events in Charlottesville, it’s vital that funders use their grant dollars to bolster grassroots groups and protect threatened communities, on those communities’ terms.

For additional context, Jennifer shared:

“White supremacy is not just about extremism and violence … it’s about control and the expectation that some of us earn the position to broker and determine social change and how resources flow on behalf of others. If we’re genuine about wanting to shift the legacy of systemic and historical racism in this country and confront white supremacy, then we need to be serious about who has voice, agency and control over how resources are allocated.”

Shared learnings

In the discussion, the speakers shared lessons, benefits and outcomes from their approaches to community-led grantmaking. They emphasized the importance of active recruitment, trust-building, compensation, language access, evaluation and a commitment to difficult conversations.

The audience was also invited to weigh in on what’s needed to activate and expand participatory grantmaking in the sector. Among the 130 attendees who participated in the poll, the top answer was “political education for board an executive leadership.”

What resources and other funding models inspire you to shift power and democratize the control of resources in philanthropy?

Keep the conversation going on Twitter using #ShiftPower, and share your questions and stories with GrantCraft for the participatory grantmaking guide that’s in development! View the webinar recording and contact Jen Bokoff at to learn more.

Caitlin Duffy is senior associate for learning and engagement at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow @NCRP and @DuffyInDC on Twitter.