Key Points

The philanthropic sector has been called on to increase community engagement and beneficiary voice in funding decisions — in other words, to democratize philanthropy — and foundations have responded with a variety of innovative grantmaking models. One of those, participatory grantmaking, comprises practices that range from soliciting feedback from constituents to encouraging their active participation in or control over grantmaking decisions, program implementation, and outcome evaluation. Little research, however, has examined the perceptions of foundation or community stakeholders involved in participatory grantmaking initiatives.

This article examines the participatory grantmaking process of a Baltimore, Maryland, community foundation that invested $1.5 million in an initiative to support community-building and improvement activities in two communities it had engaged with in the past. It uses data from focus groups and interviews conducted over the five years of the initiative that sought to learn how the foundation’s involvement was perceived and experienced, and in what ways its model of participatory grantmaking influenced collaboration and trust among community-based organizations and resident engagement in and ownership of programs and activities.

Learning from the community-based initiative suggests that changing the power dynamic between funders and grantees can facilitate project success. This article concludes with a discussion of what the foundation learned about shifting power away from the funder and closer to the community, how those lessons have informed its current strategy, and what implications this has for philanthropy more broadly.

Open Access