Donors everywhere face a paradox. We want to empower the people we support. Yet there is an inherent, sometimes disempowering, dynamic between donor and grantee, with one side holding the money, and the other side reaching out. This unequal power dynamic can leave donors open to accusations of having hidden agendas. How to escape this dynamic is an ongoing concern for donors, including the Ford Foundation. There is much we can do, for example, to develop our areas of focus in consultation with the communities we support, and make our decision making more transparent. But can we go further?

Peer-review grantmaking—the subject of a recent workshop convened by Health for All (Chaoyang Kangzhong Health and Education Service Center) and supported by the Ford Foundation’s Beijing office—provides philanthropy with an innovative way to challenge this donor-grantee power dynamic. The practice gives grantees themselves the power to decide where the money goes, shifting decision making from outside to inside the communities affected by the funding, and sometimes also from outside to inside the countries concerned.

The event marked the launch of the Chinese translation of Who Decides? How Participatory Grantmaking Benefits Donors, Communities, and Movements, a report that analyzes recent peer-review grantmaking practices and how they have affected donor-grantee relations. About 70 people took part in the workshop in Beijing, most of them representing Chinese foundations and Chinese NGOs with some connection to grantmaking. Following a presentation by Matthew Hart, the lead author of the report, two well-known figures from the Chinese philanthropy scene praised the report: Xu Yongguang, chairman of the board of Narada, one of China’s best-known foundations, said grantees are like consumers; he saw the participatory practice as a way to “marketise” grantmaking, making it more responsive to grantees. In contrast, Kang Xiaoguang, director of Renmin University’s NPO Research Center, celebrated the Communist Party’s traditions of participation, and saw these as offering guidance for working out how to apply peer-review grantmaking in China.

We heard from several participants who had experience with peer-review grantmaking. China Alliance of People Living with HIV/AIDS (an NGO which works closely with several government bodies) used to run a small grants fund to support member organizations. Initially the alliance’s leadership relied on the “traditional” approach, recruiting a panel of experts to make decisions on who should receive funding. But the outcome provoked angry questioning by members. So the Alliance switched to a fully open process, convening a forum for all members where applicants presented their proposals, experts commented, and both experts and member organizations voted to decide the final result.

A representative from FRIDA, the Young Feminist Fund, explained how they sort applicants into groups, translate and make anonymous the applications, and then submit these back to the groups of applicants to read and vote on electronically. You need to vote to be eligible to receive a grant, and you can’t vote for your own organization. During the process, applicants gain an understanding of the challenges of grantmaking, as well as of the range of young feminist action in their region. Even if they don’t get a grant, they benefit from networking with similar organizations, and their relationship to the grantmaking process is transformed. Most importantly, this approach promotes solidarity rather than dividing people over competition for resources.

Other organizations recruited community representatives to serve on decision-making panels. Marie Stopes International China recently established a fund to support youth leadership in sexual and reproductive health; decision-making on grants will be made by a panel of youth representatives. Another uses an open nomination process to recruit LGBTI and sex worker representatives to sit on a panel that makes decisions on grants.

The conversations in the workshop—including questions about how to ensure community representatives are really representative and trusted, and what effective participatory practices are already underway—continued beyond the event, generating a wave of discussion among the Chinese foundation community on new media platforms. The result: Several organizations made commitments to start or further develop peer-review processes themselves.

Peer-review grantmaking is gaining profile internationally, in part due to the Who Decides? report. Of course, this practice is evolving and more documentation and analysis are needed. But while we learn more, we can take immediate steps to support and develop this promising approach to making grantmaking more open and inclusive.

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