Participatory Grantmaking: How We Failed, and What We’re Learning

By: Shaena Johnson and Marni Rosen

The Environmental Justice Resourcing Collective (EJRC) at the Kataly Foundation is a group of nine women of color movement leaders who have a long history of engagement in intersectional environmental and social justice work.

After being established at Kataly in 2020, the nine leaders of the EJRC engaged in a participatory process to set funding priorities, grantmaking strategy, and make decisions about grantees. Over the past two years, the Collective has committed $37.4 million to 117 grantees, which includes rapid response grantmaking following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Participatory grantmaking can be a powerful tool to center the experiences and expertise of people who have deep knowledge of the issue areas in which grants are being made. It is also a process that comes with unique needs for support. Foundations that are engaging with participatory grantmaking must be aware of how their institutional practices do — and do not — set participants and grantees up for success.

In this piece, Marni Rosen, Senior Advisor to the EJRC, and Shaena Johnson, EJRC Program Officer, offer reflections on the process that has happened within Kataly to facilitate the Collective’s grantmaking, where there were breakdowns in communication, and what the impact has been.

After the EJRC made determinations about grantees and grant amounts, what was Kataly’s process for distributing resources? What did you learn from that process, and what do you feel should have been done differently?

Marni Rosen: The grantees received an email from Kataly with a brief note that listed the three overarching goals of the EJRC, the names of the movement leaders who make up the Collective, the grant amount and five-year timeline, and links to forms for additional details needed to process the grant.

What was missing from that initial communication was the deeper story. I was so deeply focused on the how, and making sure the resources moved quickly to groups, that I lost the importance of sharing the who and the why. Who is a part of Kataly’s EJRC, why did Kataly create the container for this Collective, and why were these resources allocated to them? What community of grantees were we bringing folks into? Who else is on the grants list and what does that full picture look like? These are all questions we failed to answer.

Another key piece of information that was missing from the communication was that of the opportunity for a relationship with the EJRC and Kataly. We were deep in our search process for the EJRC Program Officer at the time the grant list was finalized and these emails were going out to grantees in mid-June. We knew the relationships with the grantees would be held by our new program officer, but we did not communicate that information to the grantees up front. This was another place where I missed an important opportunity to provide clarity and signal the EJRC’s desire to build a relationship with grantees, to build the internal organizational capacity to do that effectively, and overall to be responsive to and supportive of them beyond moving the money.

Finally, we fell down in not including a clear description of what would be expected regarding reporting. In effect, we were asking grantees to accept the resources without providing transparency around reporting requirements. Especially with a trust-based approach, this was a critical step that we didn’t address. Instead, we could have used this initial letter to confirm that written reports would not be required, that we would take the responsibility each year to get on the phone or zoom with folks to learn about their work that year, obstacles they faced, how we might better support them, and celebrate their achievements together.

How has initial communication and lack of communication with EJRC grantees impacted current relationships with the EJRC grantees? How are you building trust with grantees at this stage?

Shaena Johnson: From a “field” perspective, the practice of non-effective communication from grantmaking institutions has consistently and negatively affected many vulnerable grassroots organizations in our ethos for decades, causing deep distrust of the entire sector of institutional philanthropy. Thus, many of our intentions became overshadowed by the trauma and lingering effects of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, in which we play a major role.

While we pride ourselves on “low-barrier” grantmaking, the caveat is that the practice of low-barrier grantmaking without effective communication almost never accounts for the existing power dynamics with philanthropy that affect most Black, Indigneous, and people of color-led grassroots organizations in the communities we serve. It also almost never accounts for the layered capacity needs of grantees. While our intention was not to be intrusive or prescriptive, we did not account for power dynamics or internal capacity prior to almost doubling many of our grantees’ annual budgets “overnight.” We also did not proactively take steps to ensure that distributing resources without access to any accompanying support was actually adequate for our grantees. We just gave. Our intentions were as genuine as possible while working within the confines of institutional philanthropy.

As the Program Officer for the EJRC, part of my role is building relationships with our grantees. After more than 40 grantee calls in the past three months, I have learned that while our resources were welcomed by grantees, our lack of effective communication turned out to be a bit of a disservice to our grantees and the communities we serve. Our grantees had more questions than answers after receiving the initial communication. During the calls, grantees inquired about grant payments, grant period, renewal/sunset processes, and any additional funds available, to ensure their budget and capacity sustainability.

After answering those fundamental questions, I decided to add an additional question to our reporting calls, simply asking our grantees, “What do you need and what can we do to assist?” Our grantees had a lot to say, and were appreciative of the care shown through those simple shifts in approach. We have taken their answers as a framework for our capacity building and accompaniment strategies.

I have also built trust through my ability to relate to the movement and organizational experiences of many of our grantee staff, due to my own lived experience. Having the ability to discuss “hard” internal issues with executive directors and support staff has proven effective in building trust, as grantees have acknowledged that most institutions do not provide that additional support.

Additionally, I used my Kataly cell phone as a “grantee hotline” — every grantee has access to call or text if there is a timely or emergent need.

Time, availability, and ability to relate to grantees while shifting our systems to accompany our grantees in their work has all proven to help in repairing and rebuilding our relationships with our grantees.

This blog post is a part of a series from the Kataly Foundation on failure and philanthropy. Read the first post here.

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The Kataly Foundation

The Kataly Foundation moves resources to support the economic, political, and cultural power of Black and Indigenous people, and all communities of color.