Challenges and Strategies for Building Community-Driven Philanthropy

  • By Jaser Alsharhan, January 25, 2021

2020 was a year of reckoning, in many ways, but especially as it relates to grantmaking practices, grantee inclusion and creating opportunities for foundations to be in greater partnership with grantees and the communities they serve. The COVID-19 pandemic illuminated many of our society’s pre-existing racial, social and economic inequities, forcing us within the GEO community and the field in general to assess if philanthropic “business as usual” was actually working for those in need.

To support the philanthropic sector in times of crises and beyond, GEO has committed to providing resources, convenings, peer communities and remote learning to support grantmakers in their process to shift philanthropic culture and practice to steward lasting change. Our Smarter Grantmaking Practices of committing to flexible, reliable funding, capacity building, learning and evaluation, collaboration and strengthening relationships with nonprofits and community leaders have become more important than ever and also deserving of critical reflection to account for shifting needs and priorities in the U.S.

Through the Remote Learning Series – GEO’s “crash course” on our smarter grantmaking practices – this Fall 2020, peer to peer engagement allowed the cohort of 30 GEO members to grapple with ways in which a community-led, participatory lens could be applied to grantmaking.

While in conversation with each other, several barriers to truly achieving community-driven philanthropy were identified by Remote Learning Series Participants:

Money, Time and Extraction

  • How do we make sure we are not overburdening nonprofits by requesting their time, talent and energy to form grantee-centered initiatives?
  • How do we make sure to adequately compensate people for their time when we are asking for their participation?

Capturing Candid Opinions

  • If participatory design requires truth-telling to adapt processes and behaviors within a foundation’s grantmaking strategy, how can we capture that candid feedback in a manner which feels less extractive and more in partnership?
  • Because of the inherent power dynamics between foundations and nonprofits, how do we make sure the truth-telling from grantees is candid? How do we make sure that the grantee provided feedback is not filtered because of fear of financial or relational repercussion?

Making sure participation isn’t relegated to one area of grantmaking

  • How do we ensure participation is informing every stage of the grantmaking cycle, from concept to evaluation? How do we ensure that nonprofits and community members feel supported by closing the feedback loop and providing a summary of how such feedback was used to influence change efforts?
  • How do we share learning both within our foundations and externally to create a greater culture of transparency around community-informed grantmaking?

The Remote Learning Series not only offered participants the chance to surface some deeply rooted challenges and questions like these but also the opportunity to brainstorm ideas to better address such pain points alongside colleagues. Throughout the 2020 series that was focused on our smarter grantmaking approaches, we saw some great strategies developed by our GEO member organizations for advancing community-driven philanthropy:

Stakeholder-created Grant Funds

Many foundations pointed to specific funds that have been initiated and developed by community members and grantees. These funds are dedicated to a community-identified purpose, and the decision-making table is headed by nonprofits and community members with lived experience in the program area they are funding.

Community Advisory Groups

To address the issue of maintaining a steady form of feedback throughout the grantmaking process (concept to evaluation), community advisory groups were identified as a great way to allow community members and nonprofits to advise on several different components of the grants. The Community Advisory Groups can meet according to the timeline of a grant cycle and provide insight on process, procedures, and policies which either alter the course of the grantmaking plan of the foundation or create an opportunity to change a future grantmaking cycle.

Focus Groups

The grantee experience is not monolithic, and perceptions can vary about a foundation or a foundation grantmaking process. It is important to allow for different ways in which grantees and community members can express their true thoughts about a foundation and its practices. Focus groups can be a great way to test assumptions, gather input, and allow for an external facilitator (independent of the foundation) to gather authentic feedback from community members and grantees.

These solutions, among others, help to create more trusting relationships between grantmakers and nonprofit partners. One of the principles of Trust-Based Philanthropy is to “solicit and act on feedback.” In order to receive more candid feedback which improves the quality and impact of grants, grantmakers must embody a community-driven mindset. Community, in this case, may not be a geographic community, but rather refers to those who are most impacted by the support we provide – this is highly contextual since we often serve different, overlapping communities as grantmakers.

Community-driven philanthropy is successful to the extent it can engage stakeholders in a way that mitigates power dynamics, creates space for authentic sharing and emphasizes partnership as the end goal rather than information extraction. As such, an important component of this work is to think through how to involve nonprofits and community members in the design, implementation and evaluation of grantmaking.

Though there are significant challenges when attempting to actively involve all that need to be at the table, our 2020 cohort also emphasized that there are creative and practiced opportunities for codesigning a path forward. Our Smarter Grantmaking Starts Here curriculum creates a collaborative learning environment so that participants can surface challenges and subsequently work with peers to craft solutions.

We look forward to identifying additional solutions in this and other areas for growth in philanthropy in future cohorts of the Remote Learning Series, with the next cohort process launching in Spring 2021. If you would like to learn more about our Remote Learning Series and community-driven philanthropy at GEO, please click here.

Jaser Alsharhan

Director of Programs

Contact Jaser with questions about program development and design for GEO’s leadership cohorts and peer-to-peer programming, including peer communities, role-based convenings and member calls.

Jaser Alsharhan is the Director of Programs overseeing cohort development and peer-to-peer programming at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations.

Jaser comes to GEO after working at Philanthropy Colorado, a regional association dedicated to serving, convening, and managing funder peer cohorts. Before working for Philanthropy Colorado, Jaser completed a one-year Fulbright Program Fellowship in Rubavu, Rwanda, where he coordinated with the U.S. Embassy to conduct weekly programs and research at the American Corner, a resource center that aims to increase understanding between Rwanda and the United states. Prior to working in Rwanda, he participated in the Duke University India Summer School for Future International Development Leaders. This field research position in Udaipur, India allowed him to analyze and propose creative, locally sourced approaches to rural development. He also was a Curatorial Assistant for the Biennial of the Americas and interned for Children’s Future International, writing and researching grant opportunities for the organization’s expansion of education and basic needs services for disadvantaged youth in Cambodia.

Jaser received a Master of Public Policy degree from the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and graduated from the University of Denver, where he was a Boettcher Scholar majoring in International Studies and Political Science. He enjoys hiking, running, watercolor painting, and giving back to diverse communities throughout his home state of Colorado.