Toward Community in a Polarized World

What are the stories we tell ourselves about community today?

According to the Pew Research Center, many of those stories are grounded in a declining public trust in both the federal government and in our fellow citizens. Three-quarters of Americans say that their fellow citizens’ trust in the federal government has been shrinking, and 64 percent believe that peoples’ trust in each other is shrinking. Trust in nonprofits has also decreased. For those who think interpersonal trust has declined in the past generation, numerous reasons and rationales are brought to bear that make this assumption correct.

Eroding trust in our public and interpersonal lives fundamentally corrodes at the hearts of our fellow citizens--and corrodes what used to be our communities. For many, this is a deeply personal spiritual story and outcome.

Declining trust in government and increasing polarization in society result in an unenviable outcome of citizens feeling isolated and divided. A Kaiser Family Foundation study notes that 1 in 5 Americans always or often feel lonely or socially isolated, including many whose health, relationships and work suffers as a result. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, the rate of Americans ages 10-24 who died by suicide rose by 56 percent from 2007 to 2017. Depression rates among teens shot up 63 percent in the same time period.

Our media environments and ecosystems make it easy to adopt and opt-in to various community symbologies that give us and our communities shorthand for identities. For instance, Red vs. Blue America, which sprouted out of the 2000 Bush v Gore election fiasco and has led to folks fundamentally conceptualizing decisions like where they live based on whether it aligns with these political labels. This example is one in a larger phenomenon that the journalist Bill Bishop has coined as The Big Sort – the process of the self-segregation of Americans into like-minded communities. Bishop suggests that Americans choose to live in neighborhoods where most residents share beliefs similar to their own. The media social and political echo chambers that exist online are also geographically spatialized where people can avoid interacting with anyone who disagrees with them on political issues.

Greg Martin and Steven Webster, in an article in The Atlantic, agree that there is rapid growth of geographic polarization in the United States, but disagree with Bishop on the cause. They describe a political polarization manifesting itself geographically largely because partisan preferences are strongly correlated with population density. Further, they speak to how partisan identities now align with social identities, such as race, religion, geography (i.e. rural vs. urban) and education level, far more closely than they did a generation ago before the political re-alignments associated with the 1960s.

Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic is unearthing additional stories.

Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic,

“Normal times do not offer a convenient news peg for slow-rolling catastrophes. When we look at the world around us—at outdated or crumbling infrastructure, at inadequate health care, at racism and poverty—it is all too easy to cultivate an attitude of small-minded resignation: This is just the way it has always been. Calamity can stir us from the trance of complacency and force us to ask first-principle questions about the world: What is a community for? How is it put together? What are its basic needs? How should we provide them?”

These are the questions we should be asking about our own world as we confront the coronavirus pandemic and think about what should come after.

These are the questions we should be asking about our own world as we confront the coronavirus pandemic and think about what should come after. The most important changes following past catastrophes went beyond the catastrophe itself. They accounted fully for the problems that had been revealed and conceived of solutions broadly. New York did not react to the blizzard of 1888 by stockpiling snow shovels. It created an entire infrastructure of subterranean power and transit that made the city cleaner, more equitable, and more efficient.

And of course, there are stories told to us. Silicon Valley is good at creating this kind of narrative, as author and co-founder of the Sacred Design Lab, Casper ter Kuile, notes:

“Venture capitalists are investing in companies that put community at the heart of their strategy.” As one VC wrote recently, “The 2020’s will belong to the entrepreneurs who can help build authentic communities.”

This is exciting stuff! Just imagine, a whole new generation of products and services that intentionally foster human connectivity! But can they live up to their promise? And isn’t it also a little scary?

Just as social networks, especially Facebook, used the language of friendship to describe the simple act of allowing our attention to be captured by someone's status update, we're already seeing the denigration of the word 'community.'

My team at Sacred Design Lab and I call this 'community-washing'. The language is inspired by the term 'greenwashing' - wherein companies claim environmental brownie points without changing anything significant in their operations. Think of oil and gas companies releasing ads featuring windmills and solar panels despite massively investing in fossil fuels, for example.

The danger with community-washing is two-fold.

  1. First, that we are promised community (a rich, complex experience) but what we get is a second-rate, emoji-enabled soulless product or service that never gets anywhere deep.
  2. And second - more dangerously - that the poverty of community experience that we experience through these products and services diminishes what we think is possible for community itself.

There are also stories and examples that we build together across differences and shared purpose in formal and informal ways. What do these types of actions and initiatives look like and reveal? In examining these constellations of stories we arrived at the beginnings of a typology of community that fits into a 2x2 matrix represented through formal/informal community and inclusive/exclusive community.

For example, your average, run-of-the-mill campground is representative of an informal, inclusive community. Anyone is welcome and boundaries of such a community are ever-changing as the campground becomes more or less inhabited.

A key point of revelation within our research is that so many of us are motivated by similar desires and fears in regards to how we wish to live our lives – and the act of finding our allies and conspirators in this work is of primary significance in activating change. This is why we are so excited to hold an inaugural Community Gathering in early February 2021 with 50 educators, organizers and activists, from a breadth and depth of overlapping and differing communities, who can be together in a peer-led space for true and necessary praxis of learning, connection and action.

Call to Action

How might we challenge and re-imagine our idea of community?

Our goal is to foster leadership and connectivity, to work across lines of difference, and to build social-civic muscles to engage in deep and difficult conversations in our neighborhoods, organizations, and institutions. Our essential question is: How might we challenge and re-imagine our idea of community? We’d love to hear from you. Drop us a line at [email protected], or join us for a Community Conversation on April 2, 2021, for a conversation about this research and lessons learned from our inaugural Community Gathering.

Read the full report, American Community Today.

Toward Community in a Polarized World


About the author(s)

Founder and Principal
Gather Consulting

NextGen Milwaukee

Listening During Crisis: An Essential Competency

As the COVID-19 death toll rises around the world, economic recession leads to hunger and insecurity, and police brutality in the US lays bare long-standing inequities, foundations around the globe have switched into crisis mode. This moment of crisis invites us to confront entrenched, systemic inequities and vulnerabilities. So how can foundations rise to the occasion? This is a question we are increasingly being asked at Feedback Labs, so what follows is advice from our experience in building greater sector effectiveness.

One key to stepping up during a crisis is listening. Listening - especially to the people we ultimately seek to serve - has the power to make our work more effective and more equitable. The more than 750 philanthropic leaders who have signed the Council on Foundations COVID-19 pledge recognize listening, especially to communities that are least heard, as one of eight key actions that funders can take to confront COVID-19 effectively. The leading foundations that form Fund for Shared Insight believe that listening and responding to constituents supports our quest for equity.

Listening is especially critical during a crisis and as we seek to address long-standing injustice. In a quickly changing context, we need to hear from our constituents - be they our grantees or the communities we seek to serve - in order to understand how their needs and abilities are changing. As we work to build power in communities that are oppressed or marginalized, listening can help. In this era of social distancing, we can’t always be at the frontlines to see what’s going on - but voices from the frontlines can still reach us. Organizations with strong listening practices, like the Moses Taylor Foundation, have been able to act quickly and decisively to confront COVID-19 because they were listening to their constituents. 

But what if your foundation doesn’t already have a strong listening practice? It can feel daunting to contemplate taking on new activities at a moment when you and your colleagues already feel stretched thin. Improving how you listen is absolutely worth doing and will give you important insights to help you make better decisions that you can’t access any other way. During a crisis, that’s especially essential. But how, practically speaking, can you get started?

  1. Get your colleagues on board. As a first step, take stock of who at your foundation is on board with the idea of listening and responding to the voices of your constituents. It may be that you have colleagues who are already finding effective ways to listen, from whom you can learn. Or perhaps a senior decision maker or board member is a feedback champion and can help you build a mandate to listen better.
  1. Plan to close the loop from the get-go. Listening is only effective if you act on what you hear and let the people you listened to know how you responded to what they said. That’s called ‘closing the loop.’ If you don’t close the loop, the people who give you feedback may feel like you wasted their time or didn’t respect their views enough to act. That can be disempowering and demotivating. Conversely, closing the loop can help strengthen your relationship with your constituents and promote richer conversation. Good practice to help you close the loop include:
    • Be transparent about your boundaries. If certain decisions are not currently up for discussion or you’re constrained in how you’ll be able to respond to feedback, share that at the beginning of the listening process. This can help you manage expectations and avoid disappointing your constituents.
    • Plan to reflect and respond. Before you launch your listening exercise, identify how and when you will reflect on what you’re hearing and decide how to respond. Pre-planned moments of reflection and decision making make it more likely that you will respond to what you hear.
    • Meet constituents where they are. Take the time to understand how your constituents prefer to hear from you and use their preferred channels to report back on what you heard from them and how you responded. Closing the loop using platforms that your constituents use regularly increases the chances that they’ll hear how you responded.
  1. Start where you are and iterate. No organization becomes expert in listening overnight, which is one of the reasons we talk about the feedback High-quality listening and responding to feedback is an ongoing, iterative process, not a one-off exercise. And that’s good news for foundations that are embarking on their listening journey - you can start where you are and improve as you iterate over the course of multiple feedback loops! There are many tools to help you start listening during a crisis like COVID-19.

As you listen and respond to your constituents, take time to reflect on how you can improve your foundation’s listening competencies. The Feedback Quiz and filling out the How We Listen section on your foundation’s profile on GuideStar by Candid offer two helpful opportunities for reflection that can help you pinpoint concrete, easy first steps to improving your foundation’s listening practice.

Listening is especially important during a moment of crisis and as we seek to address long-standing injustice. The steps to embarking on your listening journey are easier than you think. We’ve outlined three key tips here, and Feedback Labs offers many more free tools that can help you listen better during and beyond this moment of crisis.


For more about listening and feedback, check out our continuation of this discussion on the Council on Foundations blog and on the Feedback Labs blog.

About the author(s)

Senior Director of Programs and Strategy
Feedback Labs

Comment Philanthropie Communautaire bascule t-elle le pouvoir: Comment les donateurs peuvent contribuer à la réalisation de cela

Alors que des slogans tels que «think globally, act locally» (Refléchir globalement, agir localement) existent depuis des décennies, il y a tellement de fois encore que la décision sur la philanthropie et l’aide au développement se passe entre les intervenants extérieurs. Même les bailleurs de fonds qui tiennent véritablement à défendre le leadership et les initiatives locaux ont souvent du mal à renoncer au pouvoir. Ce document vise à aborder cette lutte avec des exemples concrets. Il a été commissioner par la Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy (l’Alliance mondiale pour la philanthropie communautaire) et le Global Fund for Community Foundations (Fonds mondial pour les fondations communautaires).


Table des matières

  • Philanthropie communautaire: contexte pour partager et déléguer le pouvoir
  • Philanthropie communautaire, un concept: Historique et définitions
  • Quelques indications générales pour les donateurs
  • Les subventions pour accroitre la philanthropie communautaire et basculer le pouvoir
  • Aligner les valeurs et pratiques de la philanthropie communautaire au sein de votre institution de financement
  • Construire le secteur de philanthropie communautaire
  • Conclusion

About the author(s)

Executive Director
Global Fund for Community Foundations

Anna Pond Consulting

U.S. Community Foundation Asset Growth Stalls While DAF Giving Outpaces Trends

The latest results from the Columbus Survey of community foundations, reflecting fiscal year (FY) 2018, are now live. This annual effort by CF Insights, a service of Candid, establishes a baseline understanding of where the community foundation field is today. It also helps inform those within the field who want to know how they compare with peers. This year, more than 250 community foundations, which together manage over 90 percent of the estimated dollars in this segment of the field, contributed their data to inform our findings, now available on our refreshed Columbus Survey Results Dashboard.

In 2017, a pattern of accelerated asset growth was observed across the field in an economic environment that brought strong investment returns. Due in no small part to 2018’s more volatile investment market, asset growth stalled for a significant portion of Columbus Survey respondents. Following a year in which median asset growth was in the double digits, the median for FY18 was less than 1 percent. The end of 2018 marked a rapid slowdown in the investment market, which is reflected in a split between community foundations with a mid-year fiscal year-end date (or earlier) versus those whose fiscal years ended on December 31. Community foundations whose fiscal years ended in June or earlier saw assets grow 9 percent. Community foundations operating on a calendar-year basis reported a median 3 percent reduction in asset totals for 2018.

Donor-advised funds (DAFs), growing in popularity year after year, continue to be a significant source of activity and growth within the community foundation field. A highly flexible philanthropic vehicle providing an immediate tax benefit for donors, DAFs accounted for more than half of our sample’s collective fundraising and grantmaking totals. Grantmaking from DAFs continue to outpace other fund types as well; for community foundations as a whole, the median payout rate in FY18 was 6 percent, whereas the median payout rate for community foundation DAFs was 10.6 percent.

As in prior years, the Columbus Survey Results dashboard highlights some of the operating model differences between community foundations of different asset sizes. For instance, due to an economy of scale, community foundations larger than $250 million in assets tend to have operating budget-to-asset ratios below 1 percent, whereas ratios hover between 1 and 2 percent for community foundations smaller than $250 million. For almost every asset size cohort except those with fewer than $25 million in assets, the median ratios are slightly higher than they were a year ago, an effect of slowed asset growth, coupled with increasing budgets that reflect many in the field increasing their focus on community foundation-led initiatives and leadership efforts.

In addition to survey findings, CF Insights provides lists that rank respondents in four categories: asset size, distribution rate, total (gift and grant) transactions, and gifts per capita. In the past, these lists only featured the “Top 100” in each category. This year, the Columbus Survey Results Dashboard includes all survey participants on these lists.

These sorted data lists allow community foundations of all sizes to:

  • See how they are positioned within the field in various categories;
  • Examine the relationship between their overall strategy and how they rank in the field; and
  • Enhance overall transparency by sharing their rankings with stakeholders and the public by email or social media channels.

Anyone looking to learn more about the current state of the field is welcome to explore our Columbus Survey Results Dashboard today at!

Join us for a free webinar discussing the results on August 21, 2019 at 2pm ET.

If you’d like more information about this or any of our other resources or would like to receive updates about CF Insights, visit or e-mail me at [email protected]. We invite everyone to join the conversation, and even more community foundations to join the effort to tell your story.

About the author(s)

Director, CF Insights

Reflective practices to #ShiftThePower

As a practitioner in philanthropy you know there is a big difference between talking about strategy and living a strategy. One is a plan, hopefully well written and widely vetted, with goals, metrics and tactics. If it is good, a strategy can feel like it is real on paper. However, once a strategy comes into play – especially if it is about systemic change or transformation in a field or a community – the terrain you travel is not the paper’s high hard ground with wayfaring signs, well-trodden paths and signals. Rather, it is what the philosopher and management theorist Don Schön called “the swampy lowlands” where what to do is more uncertain and progress is neither linear nor clear.

This lowland terrain is where most important and complex work takes place. We often find ourselves there as we move from talking about shifting power to making it happen. Think about co-creating a proposal, organizing a new collaborative with partners who have different perspectives, discovering an implicit bias tied to “how we do things here” with a donor or inside a foundation.

This is the work we most want to do but that doesn’t make it easy to sustain. How Community Philanthropy Shifts Power: What Donors Can Do to Help Make that Happen offers us interesting tools and tactics. I loved reading the report. It reminded me of why we started GrantCraft at the Ford Foundation. We wanted to help philanthropy practitioners learn from each other’s experiences with important, challenging work on the job.

I believe that we can help each other do a better job of using these tools and techniques when we remember to add a reflective practice lens over the challenges that inevitably will come up as we put newly acquired expertise into play in philanthropy.

Reflective practice is not new and it is not a technical term.  There is a long history of reflective practices used to aid discernment as a spiritual practice in different traditions. Since the twentieth century, reflective practice has become part of professional development and onboarding programmes in a variety of professions – education, social work, medicine and nursing to name a few – to help practitioners learn to navigate challenges that arise in challenging experiences on-the-job.

A reflective practice usually has three elements:

  • Being curious and openly observing oneself and others in action.
  • Inviting individuals and groups to dive “beneath the waterline” of freighted conversations or stuck situations to surface new information.
  • Creating experiments to test and learn from adjustments in behavior.

Reflection can seem like a luxury or self-indulgent compared to the problems that a strategy is designed to solve. On top of that, there is the perennial lack of time to pause and reflect on what is happening in the moment. Finally, there is the fear that reflection might reveal what we don’t know. Paradoxically, reflective practices can fuel new knowledge and change.

Over the last few years, I’ve been inviting and listening to stories from philanthropy practitioners about their experience navigating challenging situations where collaboration and innovative thinking with others was essential to get to better outcomes. These practitioner experiences inevitably reference the tension GFCF Executive Director Jenny Hodgson described in an earlier blog as moments when “power is central, shaping the ways in which people treat each other and expect to be treated at one end, and the culture and structures of big institutions at the other.”

Practitioners shared reflective practices that they and their partners used to construct bridges over what seemed like formidable terrain. As a result of their stories and the patterns we found within them, we created a guide to share four core practices: discovering roles; practicing presence; using the right brain and enlisting peers.

What we love about these four practices is that they are easy to use. No new language needs to be acquired to become proficient in any of them. They take time that can be incorporated into existing meetings and conversations. Retreats are not required. They are premised on the value of diversity, equity and inclusion by inviting everyone involved in a stuck moment to observe without judgement and solve puzzles together. Best of all, most of us already have a hidden or unconscious practice that includes some of the elements of the four core practices. Making any of these a discipline is a matter of being explicit about reflecting on practice, borrowing a few ideas and regularly using them.

Is your reflective practice here? If you’d like to share how that practice helped you #ShiftThePower, contact me to post it at

Editor's Note: This blog originally appeared on Global Fund for Community Foundations.

About the author(s)

Senior Partner
The Giving Practice

Eight Ways Funders Can Engage in Rural Philanthropy

The vast majority (93%) of US grantmaking is focused on urban communities. Rural America seems all but forgotten, yet rural areas are the places that make urban life possible. They provide the energy to power urban buildings, food for millions of urban residents, forestlands to combat urban carbon emissions, places where city dwellers go to “get away,” and much more. In addition, Rural America is home to significant political capital and influence that can add considerable muscle to national policy and advocacy efforts.

Rural places also can be ideal testing and proving grounds for the citizen-led systems changes that so many funders want to see. In our recent rural work, we’ve seen small communities develop their own systems for welcoming immigrant communities, improving nutrition and food access, addressing mental health, and more.

But if there’s one thing we know about successful rural philanthropy, it’s that it is inherently place-based. Locally generated energy and ideas have proven more effective than arm’s length funding practices that often come with restrictive rules and requirements. So, unless you’re an urban funder who’s willing to simply supply unrestricted general operating support to rural organizations (which they sorely need and would gladly welcome), direct grantmaking sometimes can do more harm than good. Indeed, money often isn’t the be-all and end-all answer to rural challenges. Often it’s the other roles that funders play that deliver more value to rural communities: convening and connecting, advocating, sharing knowledge, or providing training and technical assistance.

So how can funders who aren’t yet ready to be “place-based” and work on the ground in rural communities still engage in rural philanthropy? Here are eight ways:

  1. Learn genuinely. If you want to learn about rural issues, don’t be content to surround yourself with national-level association leaders or policy wonks. Hear from rural residents themselves, who have their own expertise and lessons to share. Plan a visit that allows you to spend enough time with people who live and work there to understand the culture. You may bring considerable subject-matter expertise to the equation, but you need the local expertise about the place to round it out.

  2. Work regionally. Single communities may not have all the assets required for philanthropic traction, and because of that, it’s very likely that rural communities have worked with other communities in their region. Rural communities know who their allies and partners are, and these relationships may not be immediately apparent to funders. Further, rural “regions” are often defined by relationships, not lines on maps, so rather than assuming towns or counties in a certain area consider themselves a region, investigate if and how residents define it.  Then, think about how to draw upon and reflect that natural confluence of rural communities.

  3. Partner with smaller funders. Smaller funders who already serve specific regions can be valuable allies to larger funders with a statewide or national scope. They have likely already established relationships and understand the local culture, challenges, opportunities, and leaders that exist.  You can use the authentic convening and partnering power of local funders to seamlessly channel a larger investment into smaller, yet meaningful, grants that won’t overwhelm local institutions.

  4. Engage through issue-based or state/regional philanthropy serving organizations (PSOs). Many funder affinity groups now recognize rural programs and members, and you can help these groups elevate the rural philanthropic agenda. You can also leverage state-based and regional PSOs (most of which have stronger track records of supporting rural agendas) to make the connections to smaller funders, too.

  5. Develop new rural tools and metrics. There are many areas in which philanthropy needs to develop better methods for rural work. Standard evaluation models that depend on scale and adherence to strict implementation models don’t often work. Large urban and national foundations can support learning about how to better measure the success of philanthropic-rural community partnerships, and a good place to start is by asking local actors what they see as successes.

  6. Understand and share the rural story. Even if your foundation doesn’t fund rural places, you can engage regularly with those who do. Sharing lessons and ideas (even the ones listed here) with peers can help further your own work and the field! Help bridge the artificial divides that keep rural and urban funders and communities working separately on issues that may very well be best solved together. 

  7. Consider the 1%. Currently, rural funding is approximately 7% of all grantmaking in the US, but about 20% of our population resides in rural areas. If just a handful of national or statewide funders shifted just 1% of their grantmaking to rural communities, we could close that gap significantly. Examine your funding strategy to see if there’s room to tie in funding to rural communities. Perhaps there’s a way this intersects with an initiative you are already working on.

  8. Include the rural voice. Rural organizations, rural funders, and rural individuals from across the country can and should feed ideas into any national funder’s agenda. Make sure they are included in your “inner circle” – in meetings, on advisory groups, or in other roles — to help enrich your understanding of the places you serve.

While funders don’t have to become rural experts or direct place-based grantmakers to make a difference in rural places, they do need to embrace the important role that rural engagement plays in addressing a full spectrum of social issues — from racial equity to affordable housing, to food security, to education, and more.  Neither rural nor urban areas operate in a vacuum – they are dependent upon the viability of one another. What’s strong in rural America feeds the strength of urban America. When funders embrace this notion, they help to bridge the rural-urban divide and build connections across philanthropy that ultimately help us all.

About the author(s)

Word Play, LLC

Philanthropic Advisor,​

Community-Led Change: How the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation Builds the Capacity of Nonprofits and Communities to Shape Neighborhoods Together

Editor's Note: This case study is one of five in a suite of case studies focused on building grantee capacity using the support of consultants. Each case study has been developed in partnership Community Wealth Partners, drawing on their capacity-building work with various funders and grantees. The case studies showcase varied approaches taken to address the long-term capacity needs of grantees, giving insight to the philanthropy landscape and strategies for foundations, consultants, and practitioners. 

To make community change that sticks, the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation (WFRF) turns to those who know best what a neighborhood needs: community members themselves.

For more than 20 years, the foundation has invested in improving the quality of life for children and families living in low-income communities in Eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. The foundation works toward this goal by giving multiyear grants and capacity-building support to nonprofits that plan and implement neighborhood revitalization initiatives.

The foundation takes a robust approach to grantmaking that is long-term, resident-driven, and data-driven, integrating capacity-building support throughout partnerships with grantees that often last over a decade. This approach has resulted in significant development including new homes, strengthened commercial corridors, renovated community centers, safer parks, and more. The foundation has facilitated these outcomes by building the capacity of nonprofits and residents alike to continue to plan for and make lasting change in their communities even after the initiatives are complete.

Investing for the Long Haul

Long-term investing is in the foundation’s DNA. When two legacy banks—CoreStates Bank and First Union—merged in 1998, the endowed foundation was created to ensure that local communities didn’t lose the generous and focused support provided by CoreStates, which was known for its commitment to philanthropy and community development.

The merged entity was eventually acquired by Wells Fargo, which currently employs all five of the foundation’s staff members and carries on CoreStates’ legacy of community support.

WFRF initially experimented with different types of community development grants. The foundation knew that communities in their geographic footprint faced deeply rooted challenges like poverty.

“We knew that we were addressing a long-term problem, so we needed a long-term solution,” said Lois Greco, senior vice president and evaluation officer at the foundation. “You wouldn’t buy a house with a one-year loan. So why would you make a one-year grant to fund a 20-year solution?” Parkside Business and Community In Partnership (PBCIP) leads a neighborhood planning session during the planning grant phase.

Today, the foundation awards a continuum of grants intended to provide nonprofits with support for 11+ years:

  • Planning grants: 12- to 18-month grants that go up to $100,000 for a nonprofit to create a resident-driven neighborhood revitalization plan
  • Implementation grants: Five-year grants that reach up to $750,000 for a nonprofit, or $1,250,000 for a collaborative, to implement programs identified in the neighborhood revitalization plan
  • Renewal grants: Five-year grants that can go up to $500,000 for a nonprofit, or $825,000 for a collaborative, to continue and improve on implementing the neighborhood revitalization plan

Throughout the continuum, the foundation connects grantees to consultants that help nonprofits build their capacity to engage community members, collect and use data, become financially sustainable, and collaborate effectively. This includes consultants that are selected by the grantee and funded through the grants as well as consulting services that the foundation provides to its entire grantee portfolio on top of the grant. The consulting support is curated over the course of the grant lifecycle and has evolved over time to meet grantee needs. It also helps grantees meet the foundation’s requirements: If the foundation requires something from grantees, like neighborhood revitalization plans or evaluation results, it gives grantees the additional resources and consulting support they need to fulfill that requirement.

Building Capacity to Set a Shared Vision

Each year, WFRF selects five or six funding applicants to receive a planning grant and begin what could be a more than decade-long partnership. When reviewing applications for planning grants, WFRF looks for nonprofits that demonstrate a long-term commitment to strengthening a neighborhood in four areas:

  • Children and families
  • Economic development
  • Affordable housing and housing counseling
  • Neighborhood building

The foundation seeks partners who are in it for the long haul and prioritizes the following when reviewing applications:

  • Organizations that have strong relationships with residents and other stakeholders
  • A focus on a neighborhood not currently in the midst of a WFRF-funded revitalization initiative
  • The capacity to assemble and steward significant financial resources, garner political will, and develop consensus
  • A commitment to carry out a neighborhood revitalization initiative
  • A belief that residents should be at the center of a neighborhood's transformation

The nonprofits selected for a planning grant go through a comprehensive process to engage neighborhood residents in co-creating a revitalization plan. They are typically supported by an independent consultant who they use their grant funds to hire. The lead consultant will often pull together a team of consultants with experience in understanding and mapping neighborhood demographics, building conditions, land use, trends in population growth, and other community conditions. The team works with the nonprofit to form a steering committee made up of human service providers, government officials, staff of nearby schools, leaders in neighborhood advisory committees or city development groups, and others who play key roles in the community. The steering committee ultimately decides what initiatives the nonprofit will lead if it receives an implementation grant, a decision heavily informed by a community engagement process.

“We know that brick and mortar projects, while important, must be complemented by community-driven strategies that transform individual lives and strengthen social fabric,” said Charles Bergman of New Brunswick Tomorrow, a nonprofit grantee leading a revitalization effort in the Esperanza neighborhood in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “Everyone needs to feel that they have a voice and a role in building up their neighborhood.” The foundation echoes this statement. “Residents need to be at the core for sustainable change to happen for them,” Greco said.

The community engagement process—led by the planning consultant, the nonprofit, and the steering committee—is primarily made up of stakeholder interviews, focus groups, door-to-door resident surveys, and community meetings, all working toward the goal of clarifying community needs and building consensus around priorities. To build this clarity and consensus, the planning consultant uses various creative tactics. For example, Lamar Wilson, principal of Wilson Associates, often leads this process for grantees. As a planning consultant, he asks community members to write postcards from the future describing changes they envision in their neighborhood, or he asks them to use Monopoly money to demonstrate how they would invest across various potential initiatives.

One key tool for understanding community needs that is used in all planning grants is a survey on residents’ quality of life. Nonprofit grantees work to customize this survey with Success Measures, an evaluation resource group based at NeighborWorks America, a national housing and community development intermediary. The random sample survey includes questions about residents’ quality of life, including satisfaction with their neighborhood, how connected they feel to the community, housing conditions, and feelings of safety. The survey results provide a baseline against which to measure progress in future years.

While the survey results are useful, the process of conducting the survey can be valuable, too. For one, residents are often engaged in conducting the survey, which can help raise the profile of the organization and strengthen relationships in the community. Also, physically visiting neighbors can shine light on opportunities the nonprofit might not have been aware of for future programming.

By working closely with the consultant team and the steering committee in this process, the nonprofit grantee—which is often referred to as the backbone agency—learns how to create a community engagement plan and tactics for meaningfully engaging and listening to residents. At the end of the process, residents come to a consensus around their priorities, the steering committee uses those priorities to settle on a comprehensive set of initiatives across the four required areas, and the nonprofit grantee is then tasked with implementing the initiatives if it receives an implementation grant. “It’s not a plan by the backbone agency and for the backbone agency, but by the neighborhood and for the neighborhood,” Wilson said.

Throughout the course of the planning grant, nonprofits learn by doing. They build their capacity to engage residents and conduct surveys by working side-by-side with professional technical assistance providers. For example, the Camden, New Jersey-based Parkside Business and Community In Partnership (PBCIP) led a planning process in 2005. During the process, PBCIP realized that focusing on those directly in the neighborhood wasn’t enough; it needed to engage those in the surrounding communities too.

“There can be a project just three blocks from where someone lives,” even if they’re not technically in the neighborhood, said Bridget Phifer, executive director of PBCIP. “We can engage people in adjoining communities, inviting them to community meetings and having them at the table, so they have a sense of what’s happening that could directly or indirectly impact them over the long term.”

Once the nonprofit has a strong, resident-driven revitalization plan, they can apply for a grant to implement that plan. Implementation grants are awarded on a competitive basis. WFRF works to be very clear throughout the planning grant that implementation grants aren’t guaranteed and communicates what exactly will make for a strong implementation grant application, such as strong methodology and use of data. If a planning grantee doesn’t receive an implementation grant, the foundation spends time with the organization’s leaders to help them understand why, share how they might be successful if they applied again, and highlight how the plan that they just created can be used to get funding from other funders.

At this stage, some nonprofits apply alone for an implementation grant while others apply as part of a collaborative made up of at least three organizations, including a nonprofit that serves as the lead. If they receive the grant, all implementation grantees have access to support in three key areas: data, sustainability, and collaboration.

Building Capacity to Collect and Analyze Data

Foundation support for conducting evaluations and collecting and analyzing data is not standard practice across the nonprofit sector. In the 2016 report Benchmarking Foundation Evaluation Practices, two-thirds of foundations said they fund evaluations for less than 10 percent of individual grants. Yet at the same time, nonprofits report they don’t have enough funding or capacity to do evaluation: 52 percent of nonprofits in the State of Evaluation 2016 report cited insufficient financial resources as a barrier to evaluation, and 48 percent cited limited staff knowledge, tools, and/or resources.

The data and evaluation support that WFRF grantees receive is robust and provided across the continuum of grants. During the planning grant, the foundation provides each grantee and consulting team with a subscription to PolicyMap, an online data and mapping system. Grantees then get support from Reinvestment Fund, an organization that uses capital, data, policy, and strategic investments to bring high-quality grocery stores, affordable housing, schools, childcare, and health centers to low-income communities. The Policy Solutions group within Reinvestment Fund helps grantees use data from a range of sources to inform a set of practical and achievable strategies that they develop for their community-driven neighborhood revitalization plan. Reinvestment Fund and PolicyMap also produce several webinars on relevant topics each year open to grantees in all program phases.

“This data is vitally important to ensure that the planning areas and the plans—which are sometimes far too large or unrealistically aspirational—are sound and identify actions that can be achieved with the resources available,” said Ira Goldstein, who is president of the Policy Solutions group within Reinvestment Fund.

At the end of the planning process, grantees work with the planning consultant to identify specific milestones and activities they need in order to implement the first five years of their plan. This helps grantees create a project plan, which serves as a roadmap to turn their vision into clear action steps they can take. It also provides a baseline for what grantees will be held accountable for; grantees will later evaluate themselves by their progress on these milestones and activities.

During the implementation phase, grantees first work with Success Measures to develop a theory of change that outlines shorter- and longer-term outcomes of the neighborhood revitalization initiative. Then, they develop an evaluation plan that identifies specific activities they’ll engage in to understand progress toward those outcomes. For collaborative grantees, the evaluation plan clearly outlines the role of each collaborative member in collecting and analyzing data. The evaluation plan guides what the grantee does—and when—and serves as a working document that evolves over the life of the grant.

The Success Measures and Reinvestment Fund teams are steady resources to grantees throughout the five years of the implementation grant, working to provide the right tools at the right time. Success Measures staff train grantees on strong primary data collection practices, check in with them to support the regular reporting they must do for the foundation, guide them in documenting exactly how they’re conducting surveys and evaluations in order to institutionalize that knowledge, and support them in inputting their data into an online system so they can easily access it.

Meanwhile, Reinvestment Fund helps grantees as they create a series of Community Change Reports through PolicyMap. The reports compare select secondary data sets within the neighborhood to three other peer neighborhoods, which are either comparable or somewhat aspirational. Reinvestment Fund works with grantees to select those peer neighborhoods and provides guidance to ensure each grantee gets maximum value out of the reports. Reinvestment Fund staff remain on-call to help grantees understand evolving demographics, changing real estate markets, and how to refine their strategies in response to these shifts.

All of this is done in partnership with nonprofits. “It isn’t labeled as support. It’s, ‘we’re doing this together,’” said Maggie Grieve, vice president of Success Measures.

Building Capacity to Sustain a Long-Term Initiative

Implementation grantees have applied to take part in a sustainability capacity building program with Community Wealth Partners, a social impact consulting firm. The program began in 2011 after the foundation went through a listening exercise to understand what additional support grantees wanted.

“Grantees wanted guidance on sustaining their impact long-term,” said Amy Farley, director at Community Wealth Partners. “They wanted to walk out with tangible outcomes at the end, so we designed the program to make sure they get that, whether it’s a strong pitch they can use to increase their funding or a clear understanding of the resources they need to reach their goals.”

During the sustainability program, cohorts of five or six grantees work to create and execute a plan to maintain their neighborhood revitalization initiatives long after the WFRF grant has ended. Participants have one key financial goal coming out of the program: raise at least $100,000 in new funds within two years for their respective neighborhood revitalization efforts.

To help them accomplish that goal, Community Wealth Partners works with participants to think about both financial sustainability and more broadly about what they need in order to sustain their initiatives, such as a clearly articulated vision, the right talent, effective processes, an ability to measure progress, and adaptability to changes in community needs. Community Wealth Partners leads participants through a series of working sessions and one-on-one coaching to articulate the social impact they seek, create a focused business strategy, strengthen their fundraising pitch, and develop a document they can use to make their case to prospective funders and investors. Then, after the program concludes, Community Wealth Partners provides six additional months of coaching to help participants work toward their fundraising goal.

The sustainability program “provides the opportunity to take a step back and think about your past, present, and future strategies in a different way to provide a compelling story,” a participant shared anonymously in a post-program survey. “You rarely get that opportunity when buried in our day-to-day work, and this is what takes revitalization efforts to the next level.”

This process helps participants more clearly understand their goals and what it will take to accomplish them. It increases their comfort with telling their story in a way that builds a strong case and sets them up to comfortably ask for funding. And it works: 88 percent of sustainability program participants succeeded in raising $100,000 in new funds after the training. Further, it gives participants an opportunity to
build relationships with other grantees leading similar work.

“Place-based work can be lonely,” Greco said. “Grantees often don’t know others facing similar struggles. They appreciate the opportunity to learn from each other and build a peer network.”

Building Capacity to Collaborate Effectively

Another optional capacity building program led by Community Wealth Partners, the collaborative training program, similarly lasts nine months and is made up of six to eight grantees. It was created in response to grantee requests and results from a 2014 evaluation of the impact of the foundation’s grantmaking. The evaluation showed that collaborative grantees were struggling more than individual organization grantees.

“Intuitively, we believed that organizations working together, each focused on their core competencies, should yield good or better results than organizations working alone,” Greco said. “So the results were disappointing and we wanted to understand them better. We engaged a consultant to undertake a listening exercise, much as we did with the sustainability program, to hear from grantees why collaborative work was so difficult.”

Some of the biggest challenges grantees raised were around culture, distrust, divides between community members and nonprofit staff, power dynamics, lack of clarity among partners, and the need for leadership skill development. Many of these issues tied back to conflict that can bubble up in collaboration. “Our challenge isn’t finding neighborhood leaders” to collaborate with, one grantee shared anonymously during the listening exercise. “Our challenge is group dynamics and how to manage a group of people working together. There’s always a risk of conflict and I’m not sure we’d know how to handle it.” These insights informed the development of the collaborative training program.

In the program, Community Wealth Partners leads participants through a process of identifying collaboration needs and then intentionally growing in those areas. The program is rooted in nine building blocks that are seen as critical for collaboratives to reach their goals:

  • A unifying vision and strategy
  • A strong structure
  • A strong culture based on trust
  • Stakeholder engagement and community inclusion
  • Operations, administration, and facilitation
  • Clear outcomes and systems to measure success
  • Short- and long-term action-planning
  • Consistent communication and messaging
  • Strong fundraising and data sharing

Participants first take a diagnostic survey to understand their strengths and opportunities for growth among the nine building blocks. Using the survey results, participants select two or more areas to focus on and then work with Community Wealth Partners to create an action plan around those areas. For example, a program participant that wants to strengthen its collaborative structure might create a process to clarify roles, responsibilities, and decision-making among the partners. Through working sessions, monthly calls, and coaching, participants receive tailored, in-depth support in creating and implementing their action plans. Participants also receive group training on needs that are most common across the cohort.

In addition to this tailored support, all grantees—regardless of whether they participate in the collaborative training program—have access to a knowledge hub with templates, tools, guides, and resources related to collaboration. The knowledge hub includes trust-building tools, sample action plans, sample collaborative structures, a community engagement toolkit, and many other resources designed to help groups improve their culture, strengthen their structure, operate more effectively, and reach their shared goals.

“We know how messy collaboration is,” said Walter Howell, senior consultant at Community Wealth Partners. “When groups come together—each with their own ways of doing things—it takes time, intentional culture-building, and hard conversations to work well together. But it’s necessary to achieve lasting community change. The foundation is giving additional support to help with the complexity and messiness of collaboration.”

Taking the Work Further with a Renewal Grant

In the final year of the five-year implementation grant, nonprofits conduct another door-to-door random sample survey to understand changes in how community members experience the neighborhood. The quality of life survey is typically the same as the one conducted during the planning phase, enabling nonprofits to see changes in the neighborhood’s quality of life over the previous five years. In addition, Reinvestment Fund helps grantees revisit their Community Change Reports to inform priorities and adjust strategies. When paired with stories that both nuance the data and bring it to life, the survey results and comparative secondary data can indicate how the grantee is progressing toward its goals—helpful information if the grantee applies for a renewal grant.

WFRF awards five-year renewal grants based on an organization or collaborative’s application, data gathered from resident surveys and physical observations, intel gathered during annual site visits, conversations with community stakeholders, and the six-year relationship that the foundation and grantee have built together. The foundation looks for grantees that made strong relative progress on their milestones, built deep trust with community members and stakeholders, and have sufficient resident and staff capacity and buy-in to take their initiative to the next level. The foundation doesn’t want grantees to maintain the status quo of what they’ve achieved in the first five years; instead, they want them to deepen their work into lasting community change, something that often requires stronger partnerships and greater collaboration. Usually, the nonprofits want the same.

If an organization or collaborative receives a renewal grant, they continue to receive support from Success Measures, Reinvestment Fund, and other service providers as they need it. At the end of the renewal grant, they conduct another resident survey to understand changes in residents’ experience of quality of life in the community. Organizations also receive a capstone report developed by Success Measures, and sometimes a video that captures the significant contributions the organizations have made in strengthening their communities over the previous 10 years.

For some, the journey doesn’t end there. A few nonprofits have applied for a planning grant to start the process again in either the same or a different neighborhood. For example, after PBCIP went through the continuum of grants that it began receiving in 2005, there was still important work to be done to improve the community’s safety, local businesses, and housing, among other things. PBCIP applied for and received another planning grant and, subsequently, implementation grant to build on the initial work.

“We looked at the second planning process differently, with a larger scope that’s more holistic and more comprehensive," Phifer said. “We want to make sure that at the end of this cycle, we really have transformed the community.” This time around, PBCIP is deeply focused on building meaningful collaborations. The organization has been engaging with banks and Community Development Financial Institutions to support the work, the Latin American Economic Development Association to lead entrepreneurship training programs to incubate talent from within the community, the New Jersey Conservation Association to support awareness and maintenance of community trails, and others.

WFRF sees this long-term approach to grantmaking as fundamental to grantees’ ability to create greater impact. “Having relationships with organizations and leaders over a ten-year-plus timeframe has allowed our staff to become deeply rooted in understanding a neighborhood’s complexity, understanding how far a grantee has come, and empathetic to the journey yet to be traveled,” Greco said. “Our grantees have confidence that the foundation is with them for the long run, through the good times and the challenges, which has enhanced their willingness to be forthcoming with difficult issues and allowed our team to collaborate with them about solutions.”

What the Data Show

In 2014, Success Measures and Reinvestment Fund evaluated the impact of the foundation’s grantmaking over the previous decade, as shared in the Foundation Review’s article “Investing in Community Change: An Evaluation of a Decade of Data-Driven Grantmaking”. In short, the results indicate that it’s working. Among the many factors the evaluators used were home sale prices as a measure that encompasses neighborhood demand, quality, and desirability. They found that 60 percent of the neighborhoods that grantees were working in measurably improved home sale prices during the course of the grants, compared to similar neighborhoods. Sometimes this meant that increases in home sale prices were greater than comparable areas; other times, it meant the prices did not fall as severely in the grantee area compared to other areas. Even two years after the grant ended, 54.5 percent of these neighborhoods had stronger home sale prices compared to similar neighborhoods.

While increasing home sale prices can be a strong measure of impact, increasing those prices too much can displace residents who can no longer afford to live there. Reinvestment Fund developed an analytical approach to assess displacement risk and helps grantees understand when and where rising prices may pose problems for residents. With this support, grantees can better adopt context-sensitive strategies to help neighborhoods improve without forcing out longtime residents. The evaluation results did not uncover instances where grantee efforts yielded price increases that most would associate with gentrification.

“There are well-established intervention strategies for dealing with gentrification pressures,” Goldstein said. “Typically, the solution is not found in a single strategy. Data indicative of the market helps grantees craft a proper set of strategies to address the adverse consequences of gentrification.” The foundation has been intentional about understanding market forces around a neighborhood before investing so residents can remain in the community they’re working to revitalize. Evaluators also found that grantees were more likely to be successful if they possessed—and more likely to stall before full implementation if they lacked—a key set of capacities and characteristics:

  • Capacity to raise funds
  • Capacity to provide back office support
  • Capacity to manage cash flow
  • Capacity to assemble and finance physical development projects
  • Capacity to maintain strong, trusting relationships with residents
  • Openness to communicating with the foundation as they confront organizational and other challenges
  • Strong fiscal management and leadership

In other words, strong organizations led to strong outcomes.

Data also showed the value of making grants—and pairing those grants with sufficient support—to nonprofits initially assessed as “high risk.” Before awarding grants, the foundation assesses risk based on various factors including the complexity of neighborhood demographics, how long the nonprofit has been functioning, the relationship between the nonprofit and the neighborhood, and more. The 2014 evaluation found that in the two years after grants ended, 66.7 percent of “high-risk” grantees achieved advantageous results compared to 46.2 percent of “lower-risk” grantees. The foundation believes this is in large part due to ongoing support to the organizations. Once the foundation decides to provide a grant, it commits to giving grantees the support they need so that they have the best possible chance for success. This includes support from consultants but also long-term funding that enables nonprofits to hire or maintain quality staff members who can be developed over the course of the grant continuum.

“The evaluation results suggest that the foundation’s willingness to take informed chances with some initially riskier grantees yielded more impactful community rewards,” Goldstein said. “In other words, with risk came reward.”

Context was critical in understanding the data. At times when communities struggled with opioid addiction or when the foreclosure crisis was at its height, staying steady was a victory. The results gave the foundation staff and board confidence that the funds are being carefully stewarded, even when impact is not immediately apparent.

Upon seeing these results, the foundation made changes based on what it learned. For example, they lengthened the renewal grants from three years to five years and expanded
dollars available to both renewal and collaborative grantees.

“The foundation is reaping the benefits now of their early vision and willingness to stay with a well-thought-out strategy,” Grieve said. “They’ve made a significant difference because they innovated and then remained steady, while still evolving the programs to meet grantee needs and goals.”

While the 2014 evaluation demonstrates collective progress across grantees, many grantees can report great individual progress as a result of their neighborhood revitalization efforts. PBCIP has helped create 246 units of housing, restore a 72-acre park, stabilize and grow local businesses, and more. New Brunswick Tomorrow supported advocacy among residents of the Esperanza neighborhood and partner organizations that led 6,900 city workers to get paid sick time and more than 40 properties to be rehabilitated. Their work has also strengthened neighbors’ commitment to remaining and investing in the neighborhood. Neighbors work to renovate the Parkside Learning Garden as a part of revitalization efforts.

“Esperanza is the first community I have seen where people have the will and interest in staying where they are,” said Dani Rosen, Director of Operations—CAPC at New Jersey Community Capital, a partner of New Brunswick Tomorrow. “Residents have built social capital for years; now people want to invest their time, family, and funds here.”

What Comes Next

The foundation is constantly learning and adapting in response to grantee needs, shifting its capacity building support as needs change. Even as it adapts, the foundation remains steadfast in its overall approach to long-term, resident-driven, data-informed grantmaking and consistent capacity-building support. The foundation has repeatedly seen that its visible investment compounds: The more the foundation shows that it’s willing to heavily invest in these nonprofits and neighborhoods, the more others likewise invest in them.

“It has been our willingness to stay with grantees through economic and political cycles that has provided the continued focus and staff necessary to develop and implement these longer-term projects and nurture resident leaders,” Greco said. “We are seeing the neighborhoods now attract large dollar investors to implement the projects at scale because of the capacity these organizations and communities now have.”

These investments are helping residents change their neighborhoods’ infrastructure and opportunities—the parks, community centers, artwork, renovations, job training programs, community groups, and other things that make up a neighborhood. But more than that, they’re helping nonprofits and community members build muscle memory for what it takes to create change, because even if the foundation stays in a neighborhood for 10 or 20 years, the residents remain after it’s gone.

Discussion Questions: Use these questions to spark discussion within your own foundation to explore ways you might be able to support your grantees’ capacity to engage residents in achieving their visions:

  • What from the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation’s story resonates with what we have learned from our work with grantees? What about their approach is different from what we have done in the past? What is something we might consider trying based on this approach?
  • How many of our grantees are engaging communities to understand what their needs are? What are we already doing to equip grantees to work more closely with communities, and how might we ramp up those efforts?
  • Do we provide multi-year grants? To whom do we need to make the case for increasing the length of our grants, and what arguments would they find most compelling?
  • Who are the service providers we rely on to help build capacity among grantees, and where are the gaps? What are grantees’ respective capacity needs, and how might we support them?
  • What are the barriers within our foundation to increasing investment in grantees’ capacity to work more closely with communities, and how might we address those barriers? To whom do we need to make the case, and what arguments would they find most compelling?

About the author(s)

Communications Manager,
Community Wealth Partners

Deciding Together Shifting Power and Resources Through Participatory Grantmaking

Funders are increasingly looking to engage the communities they serve in the grantmaking process, but there are few resources about how to do so. In this guide, we explore how funders can engage in participatory grantmaking and cede decision-making power about funding decisions to the very communities they aim to serve. Deciding Together: Shifting Power and Resources Through Participatory Grantmaking illustrates why and how funders around the world are engaging in this practice that is shifting traditional power dynamics in philanthropy. Created with input from a number of participatory grantmakers, the guide shares challenges, lessons learned, and best practices for engaging in inclusive grantmaking.

Funding for this guide was generously provided by the Ford Foundation and Open Society Foundations. This guide is part of GrantCraft's content series on participatory grantmaking. Help us get the word out on Twitter and beyond, and follow the conversation using the hashtag #ShiftThePower. You can also read our press release here.

Download a Word version of the guide here.

What's in the guide?

  • Nothing About Us Without Us. This vignette shares an example of why and how participatory grantmaking became the approach for an international effort to fund persons with disabilities.
  • Participatory Grantmaking: What Is It? There is no formal definition for participatory grantmaking, but there are agreed-upon tenets that distinguish this approach. We begin this guide by providing context about the practice and defining the underlying values.
  • The Core Elements of Participatory Grantmaking. This section outlines the core elements of participatory grantmaking and describes the ethos and values that support this approach.
  • The Benefits of Participatory Grantmaking. Here, we explore the rationale leading funders to embrace this practice. For many, the values and core elements are a part of the benefits.
  • The Challenges of Participatory Grantmaking. All philanthropic approaches have challenges, and participatory grantmaking is no exception. Recognizing and iterating on these challenges is part of the approach itself.
  • Who Decides and How? This section presents the decisions that are made along the way and shares how different participatory grantmakers assign roles and determine who has power over what.
  • The Mechanics. No two foundations look exactly the same—take a look at a few models of participatory grantmaking and review questions to guide conversation about structure.
  • Evaluation. Participatory grantmaking is process-oriented, iterative, and difficult to codify. Yet, participatory grantmakers seek to achieve and evaluate outcomes. This section outlines the hurdles and approaches that exist.
  • Walking the Talk: Embedding Participation Internally. This section explains why a participatory ethos should be embedded in processes beyond just grantmaking decisions.
  • Getting Started. Funders can begin their journey to embracing the values and practice of participatory grantmaking through a variety of strategies, touched on here.
  • Appendix and Endnotes. These resources support information found throughout the guide and can be used to explore in greater depth.

About the author(s)

Cynthesis Consulting

Director of Stakeholder Engagement

About the author(s)

Cynthesis Consulting

Director of Stakeholder Engagement

Funders are increasingly looking to engage the communities they serve in the grantmaking process, but there are few resources about how to do so. In this guide, we explore how funders can engage in participatory grantmaking and cede decision-making power about funding decisions to the very communities they aim to serve. Deciding Together: Shifting Power and Resources Through Participatory Grantmaking illustrates why and how funders around the world are engaging in this practice that is shifting traditional power dynamics in philanthropy. Created with input from a number of participatory grantmakers, the guide shares challenges, lessons learned, and best practices for engaging in inclusive grantmaking.

Funding for this guide was generously provided by the Ford Foundation and Open Society Foundations. This guide is part of GrantCraft's content series on participatory grantmaking. Help us get the word out on Twitter and beyond, and follow the conversation using the hashtag #ShiftThePower. You can also read our press release here.

Download a Word version of the guide here.

What's in the guide?

  • Nothing About Us Without Us. This vignette shares an example of why and how participatory grantmaking became the approach for an international effort to fund persons with disabilities.
  • Participatory Grantmaking: What Is It? There is no formal definition for participatory grantmaking, but there are agreed-upon tenets that distinguish this approach. We begin this guide by providing context about the practice and defining the underlying values.
  • The Core Elements of Participatory Grantmaking. This section outlines the core elements of participatory grantmaking and describes the ethos and values that support this approach.
  • The Benefits of Participatory Grantmaking. Here, we explore the rationale leading funders to embrace this practice. For many, the values and core elements are a part of the benefits.
  • The Challenges of Participatory Grantmaking. All philanthropic approaches have challenges, and participatory grantmaking is no exception. Recognizing and iterating on these challenges is part of the approach itself.
  • Who Decides and How? This section presents the decisions that are made along the way and shares how different participatory grantmakers assign roles and determine who has power over what.
  • The Mechanics. No two foundations look exactly the same—take a look at a few models of participatory grantmaking and review questions to guide conversation about structure.
  • Evaluation. Participatory grantmaking is process-oriented, iterative, and difficult to codify. Yet, participatory grantmakers seek to achieve and evaluate outcomes. This section outlines the hurdles and approaches that exist.
  • Walking the Talk: Embedding Participation Internally. This section explains why a participatory ethos should be embedded in processes beyond just grantmaking decisions.
  • Getting Started. Funders can begin their journey to embracing the values and practice of participatory grantmaking through a variety of strategies, touched on here.
  • Appendix and Endnotes. These resources support information found throughout the guide and can be used to explore in greater depth.

About the author(s)

Cynthesis Consulting

Director of Stakeholder Engagement

Engaging in Successful Rural Philanthropy

It’s a critical time for Rural America, but what do we know about it? There are 60 million rural people in the United States, roughly 19 percent of the nation’s population. Yet, the level of (under)investment by philanthropy in rural communities is still staggering—at less than 7% of all grantmaking.

The rewards of rural philanthropy for both communities and funders can be transformative in ways that are both attributable and sustaining. No funder is too small to help rural communities pursue their hopes and dreams, and no funder is too large to contribute to the nation’s rural landscape—with a bit of thoughtfulness and rescaling, anyone can make an impact in Rural America.

There are funders who have been practicing rural philanthropy for some time, or who have entered this arena with impressive focus, energy, and innovation. In addition, there are assets in all rural communities that refute the tired clichés (lack of infrastructure, lack of leadership, outdated ideas) that are pervasive in national philanthropic rhetoric. Rural funders are embracing rural communities in ways that draw on the best of community engagement, embedded assets, and a common vision. These funders understand the contextual history of specific rural people and places and present communities with opportunities to engage on a personal and professional level.

So how can you better understand the rural context? While funders should certainly have a solid grasp of their own goals and strategies when entering rural philanthropy, it’s also critical to understand that rural communities are very different from urban ones — and very different from one another. It’s important to initially develop a common understanding of what you consider “rural”. While there are official definitions from both government agencies and some philanthropic groups, in my experience rural is best defined by people in the communities themselves. Even within the rural landscape, the definition may vary, and strategies that are effective in communities of 5,000 may not be transferable to regional rural hubs of 25,000.

Kids leaning on fence looking at field

Size is not the only differentiating factor. Rural communities are incredibly diverse — including many different groups representing a broad diversity of geography, race, and history. Equity comes in many dimensions in Rural America, including issues of race and ethnicity, economics and infrastructure, and equity of voice. Similarly, there is a wide range of political and value differences within rural communities.  Contrary to popular belief, faith institutions may or may not be influential in community life and leadership in smaller rural communities may be more informal than formal and come from unexpected places. All these factors create a context that can be very different from one rural community to the next —and require lots of funder flexibility.

Therefore, funders interested in doing effective rural work must commit themselves to a more hands-on interaction that embraces a broad range of ideas, people, nonprofits and the communities at large. There is often not a ready-made philanthropy-responsive sector to engage in a traditional transactional manner. Instead, the opportunities for real sustainable change are all in the working closely with people who are truly invested in just not their needs or gaps but in the deeply held conviction that their communities can move forward.

What does a successful rural engagement look like for a well-intentioned philanthropy?

  1. It’s broadly rooted in the place. In rural philanthropy, place—rather than a funder’s particular interest areas—should drive strategy. Single issue funders (such as those funding only education or environment) miss myriad opportunities for sustainability if they do not engage those outside of the traditional silos (e.g. school systems or conservation groups). Even the language funders use should reflect the lexicon of the community, rather than philanthropy jargon. For example, Healthcare Georgia Foundation’s Two Georgias Initiative supports independent community partnerships in 11 rural counties as they define their own paths to better health care access for residents. In addition, the foundation hired a communications professional to help the 11 counties communicate more effectively about their work with their own residents, in language that resonates locally.   
  2. It’s invested in existing assets that likely look different from urban ones. Strengthen what is already there. Consider general operating support for valued partners, and compensate them for their time and wisdom as they help you get to know their community. Grantees in rural places often will look and feel differently than grantees in urban philanthropy in size, scope, and structure. You may not find a non-profit with 50 staff holding graduate-level degrees to be a grantee. You may find, however, a group of unlikely partners who willing and able to cross traditional boundaries. When I worked at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, we saw this happen many times as part of our Healthy Places NC initiative. In rural Halifax County, for example, staff from the Chamber of Commerce, the county Parks & Recreation Department, and a community activist joined together to elevate physical activity in Halifax and created the first-ever county-wide parks plan that focused on equity.
  3. It’s open to new interpretations of success. Very little evidence-based or best-practice work has been developed or tested in rural communities. Pushing communities to pursue work based on urban models is thus not only ineffective, but may actually produce frustration and erode trust rather than achieve impact. You might share urban models as a means to spark discussion or offer them for rural adaptations, but be mindful before imposing urban models on rural communities. 
  4. Work doesn’t happen from behind a desk. Rural investments also often require staffing models that place foundation staff within rural communities or even hire from those same communities. For example, The Colorado Trust redesigned its staff in 2015 to replace traditional program officers with Community Partners who are expected to spend the majority of their time actively engaged on the ground in rural communities, building relationships, making connections, convening different community groups, and helping to further conversations around community-driven solutions. All are residents of the rural regions they serve.

All in all, rural philanthropy can be an exciting and dynamic new frontier. Just remember that you have access to the wisdom of experienced funders—and you can learn from their mistakes and successes. No matter where you begin, think of your rural investment as a journey full of small wins that will ultimately deliver a meaningful payoff.

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Insight on Participatory Grantmaking: Kaberi Banerjee-Murthy, Brooklyn Community Foundation

Kaberi Banerjee Murthy from the Brooklyn Community Foundation answers: What was on your mind as you began implementing participatory grantmaking? And, what does your decisionmaking process look like?

(Check out a detailed breakdown of how the Brooklyn Community Foundation engages in this work here. For the full repository of mechanics, click here.)