A window sign that says open

What is Open Philanthropy?

Earlier this year, we awarded more than £500,000 in grants to organisations tackling financial hardship and individuals experiencing financial hardship through our inaugural Open Philanthropy fund, which sought to demonstrate the benefits of inclusive and transparent grant-making. The programme, including our grants pot, has been generously supported by Allan & Gill Gray Philanthropy, Marcelle Speller, The Indigo Trust, and the Shockwave Foundation. 

The ‘we’ in question were 22 panellists with lived and professional experience of financial hardship who made all decisions, a set of expert advisors who supported them in that process, and the Open Philanthropy team at NPC who administrated the decisions.  

Six months on, following the publication of the Open Philanthropy toolkit exploring what we learnt, we spoke to Amy Thompson, Social Economist at Citi for a Q&A webinar about the programme and what other philanthropists and grant-makers should take from it.  

What is Open Philanthropy, and how does it differ from trust-based philanthropy or participatory grant-making? 

Trust-based philanthropy and participatory grant-making are fantastic practices, and absolutely overlap with Open Philanthropy. Last year, we spent some time researching all of the mechanisms currently being used to make philanthropy more open and ended up with 10 ‘themes’ for how this can look. Trust-based giving and participatory grant-making were two of these themes. However, our definition of Open Philanthropy was much broader than just these two themes: other themes that emerged were for philanthropists and funders to be transparent, accountable, accessible, and collaborative. 

In its purest form, trust-based work may be at odds with some of the other themes within open philanthropy: often it relies on existing relationships, and those who are already ‘trusted’ within the family, whereas open philanthropy encourages philanthropy to open itself up to new relationships, and for new trust to be built.  

It’s certainly refreshing to see many funders becoming more participatory in their approach, but practice is often limited – for example, having a board of individuals that use a service that is consulted on particular questions, or people with lived experience reviewing applications but having no say in what the grant criteria is. Participatory approaches are more common among institutional funders than individual philanthropists, where the practicalities of participation can be prohibitive, so we’re now exploring ways to enable philanthropists to access the expertise of lived experience without having to run a whole programme themselves. 

Are there particular causes that lend themselves to an Open Philanthropy approach? 

The focus of our Open Philanthropy pilot (financial hardship in the UK) was stipulated by the funder of Open Philanthropy at NPC, however, as a cause it did lend itself well to open approaches as there was a clear user group to be involved in the project. 

If a funder takes the position that our panels did, that potential grantees need to demonstrate they are meaningfully involving users in their work, then open approaches necessitate clear user groups. This could be a limiting factor for areas of user support where it can be very expensive for meaningful involvement (such as for adults with learning disabilities), areas that are more systemic, or areas where the ‘users’ are less definable.  

However, this depends on the approach that the funder takes, Open Philanthropy can take lots of forms and another funder’s open approaches may be more focussed on transparency, or addressing power dynamics, or funder collaboration, as well as or instead of user involvement. 

We’re currently preparing for our second phase of the project, which will be a Youth Climate fund, so we should have more of a clear answer to this question once we’ve applied what we’ve learnt to a very different focus area! 

How can charities looking for funding encourage Open Philanthropy? 

Fundamentally, encouraging Open Philanthropy means the same things for a variety of different organisations, from frontline charities to grant-makers: 

  • Be inclusive: bring users into strategy development, give them power in your organisation, and ensure programmes are accessible to those who need them most. 
  • Be transparent: share your challenges and successes with funders, and speak openly about your work, what you want to achieve, and what you are learning along the way. 

What are the challenges? 

There are lots of challenges in taking this approach, doing it properly relies on individuals uniting behind a radically different idea and committing the resource to making it happen. Grant makers are used to holding power and controlling processes, so shifting power towards grantees or beneficiaries can feel uncomfortable when established ways of doing things begin to be challenged. Organisations may attempt an open strategy, but organisational culture can sometimes get in the way.  

Getting started 

If you’re interested in adopting a more open approach, take a look at the Open Philanthropy toolkit, and try taking just one step towards openness. Could you publish your grants data or board minutes? Survey unsuccessful applicants to understand who you are not reaching? Make your culture more inclusive? Simplify your reporting process? 

If you have questions about Open Philanthropy, do get in touch with the team. 


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