Graffiti stating get rich or try sharing

Power dynamics in grant making

By Oli Kelly-Dean 9 April 2019

Read our full guide – A rebalancing act: How funders can address power dynamics


The top 300 foundations in the UK have combined assets of £65 billion and gave out £3.3 billion in grants in 2018. Collectively and individually these foundations wield a great deal of power through their wealth, status, and ability to set norms in the sector.

Increasingly in recent years the charity and funder sector has been thinking about systems change as a key approach for solving intractable problems. One of the keys to success in this method of working is to know yourself and what you need to change. Leaders must change themselves, including who they listen to, in order to live our democratic values better.

As funders begin to think more about the importance of including beneficiaries, and communities, in decision making. What can the sector, and particularly trusts and foundations, learn about sharing their power?

To explore this topic, we convened a mix of funders from across the sector to discuss what is currently being done and how to progress. Attendees were a mix of charitable foundations, membership organisations, community foundations, social investment organisations, charities and others.

What types of power do grant-makers hold?

Trusts and foundations can have many sources of power. Their wealth, independence, status, privilege and knowledge all give them an ability to set values and norms in wider civil society. This is not to say that these organisations wield this power illegitimately. The knowledge they bring to the sector is invaluable.

However, when looking at other sources of power such as privilege and status, and the access this gives them to other holders of power such as government, we need to look carefully at how decisions are made and by whom.

All these different sources of power shape the priorities of these organisations. It shapes the people they talk to, listen to and the whole environment in which they exist in. The boards of trusts & foundations are the nexus of all these forms of power. When we see how little these boards reflect modern Britain the need for foundations to share power becomes critical.

This lack of diversity has consequences: creating blind spots, reordered priorities and different conceptions of socio-economic justice. Transforming trustee boards is important (if time consuming), but it is only half of the equation. Sharing power with people, communities and charities is the other half.

Funder Power Dynamics Diagram

How are Rosa experimenting with sharing power?

We were joined at our seminar on sharing power by Rehana Reid from Rosa, the UK’s first and only women’s fund. Rosa began using a version of participatory grant-making for its Justice and Equality Fund.

Participatory grant-making (PGM) encompasses a range of models, but it is essentially about sharing decision making power about grants with the stakeholders who will be impacted by those decisions. It goes beyond grant-making to the ‘importance of advancing public and democratic participation in decision making’ and is intrinsically linked to place-based approaches.

Rosa created their PGM approach by building a collaborative of activists, donors, women’s services and grant-makers. Bringing them together to co-design the programme and even decide on some of the grants awarded. Rosa also brought in others such as trade unions, HR specialists and lawyers. Convening a much broader range of voices than a traditional grant-making programme. See here for more information on the process.

The result of this process was that Rosa was able to include more voices in the process and give collaborators a greater sense of agency. On the other side of the divide, applicants felt inspired, empowered and an increased sense of connectedness to their fellow organisations.

What did the other organisations think?

The other organisations that were represented at the event all showed an interest in integrating participatory approaches into their grant-making, but very few were doing it.

It was highlighted that there are different standards of what participation means. It can be an internal process, engaging different levels of the organisations. Or an external one involving grantees, beneficiaries and communities. It can also be a blend of the two. Rosa also discovered this in their PGM experience. Here 80% of applicants surveyed reviewed the applications in groups of staff, volunteers and service users, creating a greater sense of involvement.

There is not set model for participation. It can be like Rosa’s approach of bringing other organisations into the process, but it can also roundtables with charities and beneficiaries, community forums and a myriad of other methods. What matters is that grant-makers open up and share decision making power with a broad range of people. This is a process questions first and foremost, but we should be also looking to outcomes and whether they are aligned with what these people, communities and charities are seeking.

Key questions funders need to ask themselves are: Is the grant process fair and inclusive? Are people and organisations involved in decision making that affects their communities? And, are you letting beneficiaries and charities define the problem your grant is trying to fix?

The sector is at an early stage on this journey. But it is a process we must go through if we want to live our democratic values and become more responsive to the needs of the people we exist to serve. We look forward to working with you towards this goal through our focus on user involvement.

Continue the conversation on power dynamics at NPC Ignites. Join the leading voices in the sector at our annual conference. Book your tickets here.


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