Opinion: Giving Outsiders More Power Can Help Grant Makers Solve Problems


Philanthropy is many things, but at the core, it’s people making decisions about money.

For philanthropy to be effective, it matters who those people are, how they make those decisions, and who gets the money. In short, it’s about power and who has it.

It stands to reason, then, that thoughtful decision making will involve the people most affected by the problems that foundations are trying to solve. Yet this practice is far from the norm among foundations, especially larger ones.

But here’s the good news: A growing number of grant makers are inviting people from outside their institutions to help set priorities, develop strategies, and sit on their boards or advisory committees.

Global GreenGrants, for example, has a worldwide network of approximately 150 advisers who connect the fund to local activists who volunteer their time to identify strategic priorities, recommend grants, and serve as mentors to emerging leaders.

The NoVo Foundation’s decision to allocate $90 million to support the advancement of girls of color grew directly from a yearlong tour listening to girls of color, leaders of the movement, and organizers.

The Brooklyn Community Foundation, after getting feedback from people throughout the borough, gathers neighborhood residents to identify causes that need financial support and to recommend worthy projects.

Some of these foundations are taking participation one step further by putting decision-making authority in the hands of outsiders. These institutions are showing that it can be done — and in many ways, including setting grant criteria and conducting post-grant evaluations.

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