In a 1979 radio interview, Audre Lorde offers an elegant meditation on the dual goals of organizers for liberation: 

“While we’re surviving in the mouth of this dragon, we also need to be feeding our vision … devising a future where we will live someplace other than the teeth of the dragon. If not in my lifetime, or even in my children’s lifetime .. but that eventually we will move beyond dragonhood.” 

At Borealis Philanthropy, we believe that it is our responsibility not only to fund but also to shift power to the healers, agitators, and activists whose collective efforts are moving us all beyond dragonhood. Today, grassroots leaders across the movement ecosystem bring deep dedication, ancestral wisdom, and lived and learned experiences to defending our freedoms while securing “freer and freer and freer” tomorrows. Participatory grantmaking (PGM), which we began employing through our Fund for Trans Generations (FTG) in 2016, is one of the ways in which we collaborate with these leaders to do so.

PGM processes are rooted in a desire to shift power away from funders and back to the community the funds are supposed to support. This shift of power requires a power analysis and willingness to trust the community that, when embodied throughout the fund (and ideally), organization can foster a truly transformative PGM process, allowing for more radical inclusion of voices in the grantmaking process and democratization of how funding is offered to our community, including transparency about our grantmaking processes.

Employing a participatory approach, in which those closest to the issues inform our funding decisions, allows Borealis Philanthropy to:

  • Provide flexible, unrestricted funding; 
  • Design organizational resiliency offerings; and, 
  • Ensure that our grantmaking is continuously driven by the needs and values of movement. 

Beginning in 2022, the Black-Led Movement Fund (BLMF) contracted learning partner Social Insights to conduct an overview and analysis of Borealis’ participatory grantmaking processes, currently employed by four of our organization’s nine funds: the BLMF, the FTG, the Communities Transforming Policing Fund (CTPF), and the Disability Inclusion Fund (DIF). With Social Insights’ blessing, we are sharing a high level overview of their findings—melded with additional insights from across our funds—to provide funders greater clarity on implementing a more community-informed approach to grantmaking.

Key Takeaways and Lessons Learned

While each Fund’s process is unique, all teams experience and report shared benefits of utilizing a participatory approach: deeper values alignment, greater commitment and trust within their communities, and furthering the democratization of philanthropy. Most importantly, the process has led to cohorts of creative, diverse grantee partners for each fund—organizers who push us to expand Borealis Philanthropy’s very notions of justice and liberation. 

What follows are ten key takeaways and lessons from our Funds’ participatory grantmaking process, to support funders on their learning journeys toward a more community-led grantmaking approach: 

  1. A participatory process will benefit your fund, committee members, and communities. Shifting to a participatory process will help your fund identify a cohort more aligned with the needs and values of your communities in real-time, whereas folks who participate on your committee will have an opportunity to lean deeper into their expertise and develop new skills as grantmakers. Above all, your new grantmaking process will set grassroots organizers up for sustainability. Recognizing these many benefits can support you to move forward with confidence and joy, and receive buy-in from necessary stakeholders. 

How to Transition to a Participatory Model

  • Define your fund’s values and capacity.
  • Tap into the wisdom of your peers.
  • Enlist support 
  • Plan and experiment
  • Reflect and evolve

  1. Be intentional. It takes a lot to do right by the people involved in a participatory grantmaking process—both committee and community members. A participatory grantmaking approach requires more time and money, though for big benefits. Pulling in the voices of many will have a deep impact on your work, as well as the broader movement ecosystem. 

  2. Consider the angles. You will have many, many decisions to make, each with a tradeoff. An open call for committee members will result in a broader array of members, for example, but soliciting nominations will ensure a strong alignment with the values of your fund. Be thoughtful in considering how the decisions you make will impact your processes, and thus the communities you serve.

  3. Create a praxis of reflection to ensure continued growth with support. Participatory processes benefit from continuous learning and adaptation at all stages, from planning to implementation and evaluation. Request feedback on how to improve your process from funder peers, current and prior grantee partners, and committee members. Revisit, adapt, repeat.

  4. Recruit support. As necessary, partner with folks who can support you with technical needs, facilitation, and planning, and others with lived and learned experiences to help weave principles of language justice and disability justice into your processes. (Borealis’ Funds, for example, would like to shout out several of our partners–named throughout this writing—as well as Katy Love, who helped our DIF, CTPF and BLMF develop our processes.)

  5. Develop accessibility guidelines at the onset of planning. Be intentional about both language and disability justice upfront—and not only in the facilitation of your decision-making gathering, but also in your committee and grantee recruitment, grantee application processes, etc.

  6. Approach committee members with transparency and care. Offer clarity related to decision-making power, how grants will be awarded and communicated, and expectations for their role. Provide support, also, in how to navigate power through the process. In short, take good care of the people you’re inviting into your process.

  7. A participatory grantmaking process relies on the deep involvement of your committee members. Support their engagement. Provide compensation for their time and support their participation in myriad ways, for example, by employing trauma-informed facilitation or leading explicit discussions about relationships with money. 

  8. Be prepared to navigate conflict. One of many benefits of advisory committees is that the folks on them bring a broader working knowledge of the movement ecosystem to the decision-making process—but with this greater knowledge and proximity may be conflicts of interest, or interpersonal conflict. Funds must determine what relationships present a conflict of interest versus this beneficial knowledge. Your space will benefit from having developed shared values/norms and allowing members to build some level of trust. 

  9. Explore how else shifting to a participatory process might create openings to support your grantee partners. The CTPF, for example, helped facilitate further connections between its decision committee and grantee partners. “This is the first time I’ve met with a decision-making body,” shared a CTPF grantee partner. “It was empowering and exciting to be able to share our work with the very folks who chose to resource us. It was incredibly affirming to hear their thoughts and to feel their energy!”

Individual Fund Processes

Black-Led Movement Fund

BLMF Grantee Partner Dream Defenders

Established in 2016, the BLMF exists to support the Movement for Black Lives and other values-aligned organizations shaping policy agendas for Black communities, creating alternatives to institutions that have been harmful to Black people, and building local Black power. “We’re moving money to dismantle anti-Blackness and to create a future where we’re leaving none of our kin behind,” shared BLMF staff. 

Guided by a mission to expand their reach, be in better alignment with the needs of movement in real-time and distribute their funding budget further across the Black organizing community, the BLMF moved to a participatory model of grantmaking in 2023. “The shift to a participatory model was an important step in sharing power and challenging the traditional gatekeeping model of philanthropy,” reflected BLMF Program Director Julia Beatty. 

The Committee
he BLMF’s decision committee is comprised of 10 members who are recruited via an open call. Committee members represent the diversity of Blackness and varying pockets of the Black-led movement ecosystem, from land stewardship to birth justice. For its first participatory process, committee members were people who: 

  • Self-identified as disabled and/or are in care of disabled loved ones
  • Are Non-binary, trans, and queer
  • Are reproductive justice advocates
  • Based in the South and Midwest
  • Are justice impacted
  • Are doing abolitionist and/or anti-criminalization work
  • Sex worker decriminalization
  • Fighting police brutality
  • Are Black Marxists
  • Are HIV/AIDS educators and sexual health advocates
  • Are artists and cultural organizers
  • Range from youth aged to elder
  • Believe in transformation and a radical realignment of power
  • Are anti-capitalist
  • Center those most directly affected
  • Believe in organizing, and organization of their communities
  • Are building towards cooperative economics
  • Are organizing around economic justice
  • Are organizing around housing justice
  • Are fighting for queer and trans liberation
  • Are founders and leaders of grassroots organizations
  • To honor their time and expertise, all participants are compensated. 

The Process
As part of their participation on the committee, members undertook a Philanthropy 101 seminar and political education workshops on racialized capitalism and the purpose of participatory grantmaking. They also discussed the history of the fund and the goals of its grantmaking. The committee then gathered for a virtual session facilitated by acupuncturist, facilitator, podcast host and organizer Mia Herndon and artist, culture strategist, and facilitator Sage Crump. Over several days (four in 2023, and a plan of five in 2024), the committee reviews and selects from a group of 60 applications, which have been pared down based on eligibility and alignment by the BLMF team.

The Outcome
With a widened lens made available through the power of collective decision-making, the Fund was proud to announce $6 million in grant funding for a diverse cohort of over 30 organizations which embody the M4BL’s values of abolition, anti-capitalism, and kinship in April 2023. The Fund’s grantee partners have intersectional connections across issues and movements, including climate justice, food and land justice, im/migration, reproductive justice, the prison industrial complex abolition, disability justice, gender justice, and economic justice. 

“I feel super proud that we envisioned this thing and we did it,” a BLMF team member reflected. “I’m just really proud. It’s great. From the perspective of a black person, we get to send a message that our people deserve this.” Now, the Fund has refined its process for its second year, implementing the recommendations for intentionality and improvement shared in Social Insights’ process evaluation, and will make its second round of participatory grant decisions in April 2024. 

Communities Transforming Policing Fund

CTPF Grantee Partner Justice Committee

Established in 2017, the CTPF resources local communities impacted by deadly and discriminatory policing practices to build power, increase police accountability and transparency, and redefine safety by advocating for investment in community-based programs and services as alternatives to police, jails, and prisons. In 2021, the Fund moved to a participatory model of grantmaking after its community urged the Fund to make a true commitment to shifting power. “We know that it’s not just about dollars—it’s about relationships,” said CTPF Program Director Jeree Thomas said, reflecting on lessons learned from collaborating with committee members. “We want to help build relationships that can get organizations and their communities more funding and support. We want to help our partners connect and strategize. Our approach to grantmaking is relational, not transactional.”

The Committee
The CTPF’s decision committee is now comprised of 11 members (the Fund began at 8), who are selected by the Fund’s grantee partners. The Fund is primarily interested in candidates who have been directly impacted by police and/or carceral violence. To honor their time and expertise, participants are compensated. 

The Process 
As part of their participation on the committee, members attend both an orientation and welcome sessions, where they discuss logistics, conflicts of interest, our relationship with money, and reformist reforms vs. abolitionist steps towards policing. In 2024, the Fund will also add the topics of ableism and disability justice and policing and abolition. Committee members then meet in two groups, for a virtual decision session spanning anywhere from two to three days. During this gathering, facilitated by BEAM, the group reviews and selects from 60 applications, a selection pared down by the CTPF team based on eligibility and alignment. 

The Outcome
In June 2023, the CTPF announced that 26 grassroots organizations based in 24 localities, 14 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, would receive a total of $3.9 million in multi-year grants, following its second participatory grantmaking cycle. The CTPF team rolled out its second participatory process after making adjustments based on lessons learned. 

“One of the grounding principles of the committee is the recognition that every applicant who applies is worthy of funding,” explained Jeree. “While not every group is doing work within CTPF’s priorities and CTPF has limited resources, we try to figure out ways to make the process as supportive and useful as possible.” 

In 2023, the CTPF refined its process to better support applicants by releasing its Participatory Grantmaking Scoring Rubrics for applicants to have in advance, and developing short videos about the application process. Now, the Fund is moving through its third round of participatory grantmaking, for which an awards announcement will be made soon. The Fund was pleased to implement lessons learned to its latest round, and considers the act of reflection, evaluation, and iteration an essential practice for this and all future participatory grantmaking processes.

Disability Inclusion Fund

DIF Grantee Partner Disability Justice Culture Club
DIF Grantee Partner Disability Justice Culture Club

Established in 2020, the DIF supports U.S.-based groups run by and for people with disabilities to lead transformational change. Its principles and practices draw from the disability justice, rights, and inclusion movement and aim to build power and a society that is free of ableism and other discriminatory barriers. The DIF is committed to disability justice movement-aligned funding, which includes a participatory grantmaking process in which members of the disability community guide funding decisions. “Long before philanthropy began to define or understand the complexities of liberatory work, movement did,” said Sandy Ho, DIF Program Director. “The disability justice movement has been at the forefront of intersectional thinking and organizing since its inception. It’s a movement grounded in lifting the leadership of those most impacted—’nothing about us without us’ is a direct call for participatory grantmaking.” 

The Committee
The DIF’s decision committee consists of both disabled community members and funders who belong to the Presidents’ Council on Disability Justice and Inclusion, the primary funding body of the DIF. By including funders in the process, the Fund hopes to not only inspire participatory processes across the philanthropic sector, but to also foster necessary bonds between donors and disabled community members. “Funders share their approach to decision-making, which enables advocates to understand what is usually an elusive process,” shared DIF Program Officer Nikki Brown-Booker. “The grantmaking committee recognizes the historical power differential between nonprofits and funders. Funders and advocates have found that being on the committee together is a transformative learning experience.” The selection for committee members is done via an open call. To honor their time and expertise, participants are compensated. 

The Process
As part of their participation on the committee, members undertake a Philanthropy 101 seminar and political education workshops. The group considers questions like: What kinds of messages have we experienced or heard about disabled communities and disabled people? How have we reacted to them? How do these messages and narratives create barriers or opportunities for change? 

The funders on the committee also have a space to discuss and explore power dynamics—and all group members begin their gathering by grounding in their purpose, acknowledging: The work of disability justice activists is building upon a powerful movement, not just responding to this moment in time. And thus, our committee’s role is to help steward and build a legacy, not a campaign. To ease the review process, the DIF staff conduct the first review, bringing the application total to 50, which the committee then discusses and reviews over a three-day hybrid session. 

The Outcome
In December 2023, the DIF announced over $4 million in awards to 58 disability-led organizations and organizers using disability justice, rights, and inclusion to build joyful futures free of ableism. The cohort included organizations across the country engaging in a broad range of work—from affordable housing to voting rights, equitable access to assistive technologies, and supporting formerly incarcerated Deaf and/or disabled people—and working at the intersections of social justice movements. The Fund’s next grantmaking process will take place in the Fall of 2024 

Fund for Trans Generations

FTG Grantee Partner Baltimore Safe Haven

Established in 2016, the Fund for Trans Generations (FTG) invests in trans-led organizing to support a future where transgender, gender non-conforming, and nonbinary people live with freedom, safety, and self-determination. “Being a funder is not about knowing everything,” said FTG Program Director Dominique Morgan. “It’s about knowing where to find the answers. And that’s exactly what participatory grantmaking offers us: expertise, guidance, and actionable strategies which reflect the wisdom of trans folks.” 

Using a participatory approach, the FTG is able to tap into movement, and ensure the funding of trans leaders and organizations that are taking care of and sustaining their communities, creating spaces of connection and restoration, and building new worlds that foster interdependence and collective liberation. “At the FTG, we’re dreaming up a future that extends far beyond trans folks’ survival or resilience,” said Dominique. “Each day, we move our work forward with the vision of a world in which trans folks thrive in ways so bold and beautiful that they discomfort our status quo.” 

The Committee
The FTG’s decision committee is comprised of seven BIPOC trans and nonbinary leaders, who are recruited via recommendation and through the Fund’s grantee network. Ideal candidates reflect the diversity of the trans community. To honor their time and expertise, participants are compensated. 

The Process
The advisory committee is supported by a facilitation team, accessibility coordinator, language justice practitioners, and staff to ensure that all decision-making is held with care, clarity, transparency, and compassion. As part of their participation on the committee, members attend an orientation and political education workshops, and participate in a grantee and donor learning session at the end of the year. They then review all submitted applications, and discuss key themes and questions developed by the FTG team. To make its funding recommendations, the committee gathers for fellowship and decision making over a two-day virtual or in-person session. 

The Outcome
In June 2023, the Fund awarded over $700,000 in renewal grants to support 18 movement organizations and leaders to advance their work in today’s political moment and beyond. These groups joined 25 that received multi-year funding from FTG in 2022. Faced with heightened transantagonism and an onslaught of anti-trans legislation, these grantee partners are leading efforts to bring safety, resources, and healing to trans communities. The FTG is now preparing for its next cycle, which will be awarded in June. Its grantmaking process continues to evolve, as Fund staff learn more about how to support its advisory committee members in both the review and decision making processes—while also remaining accountable to prospective grantee partners and the broader trans-funding ecosystem.

“The participatory process not only largens our lens of what liberatory work can be—it also ensures we’re accountable to community,” shared FTG staff. 

Resource List