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Date: 2021-08-24 22:18:45
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Could the gates finally be opening at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation? For more than two decades, funding priorities at the multibillion-dollar foundation were set by its two founders, along with billionaire investor Warren Buffett and, until his death in 2020, Bill Gates’s father.
This level of insularity is unusual even among notoriously homogeneous, opaque, and hierarchical philanthropic institutions. Buffett himself warned the foundation’s CEO recently about the risk of “arrogance, bureaucracy, and complacency.” Then came the announcements of Bill and Melinda’s divorce and Buffett’s resignation and a plan to finally expand the foundation’s board of directors.
All of this points to a bigger potential shift in the foundation’s operations. But will the Gates Foundation merely catch up to its peers or use this opportunity to rethink its balance of power — and in the process solidify a new approach to what leadership looks like in the philanthropic world?
We are rooting for the latter. In our book “Letting Go: How Philanthropists and Impact Investors Can Do More Good by Giving Up Control,” we explore how tech-CEO-turned-billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates tend to manage their giving in the same top-down way they manage their companies.
This donor-centric approach encourages grant makers to act like CEOs who set priorities at the top — treating nonprofits like contractors whose job is to see their vision through. It also encourages a dry, dispassionate, technocratic approach to fixing complex and messy human problems. And it ignores or devalues the wisdom of activists and community members experiencing the problems the grants are trying to solve.
But changing such cultures isn’t just about increasing diversity, although that’s exactly how many critics are framing the opportunity to add more seats to the Gates Foundation board.
Bringing on more diverse board members is important, but diversity alone is an imperfect metric for progress, as many philanthropic organizations will likely discover. After years of advocacy, women now represent three quarters of staff at U.S. foundations but hold less than half the decision-making roles at large foundations. A focus on diversity also runs the risk of tokenizing diverse hires, regardless of their role, by asking one person to shoulder the burden of an entire race, gender, or sexual orientation.
The issue of who is in the room addresses just one part of the equation. The other part is accountability, or how giving happens. Even when diversity commitments are truly successful, they only result in bringing new perspectives inside an institution. They don’t actively address how to engage people outside the organization who are not professional grant managers or philanthropic leaders.
Instead, real change comes through participatory grant making, which shifts decision-making power to the community the grant maker wants to support. This act of letting go can include how priorities are set, how potential grantees are identified, and how final decisions about grant funding are made.
Participatory grant making not only brings more diverse perspectives and expertise into the conversation, it creates accountability and transparency — something that the Gates Foundation and other highly bureaucratic grant makers have long been criticized for lacking.
Given its size and complexity, it’s likely unrealistic for the Gates Foundation to immediately adopt a participatory grant-making approach. But a transition period like this one is the perfect time to start bringing more voices into the conversation. Gates and other foundations stuck in the old donor-grantee model could learn from a handful of philanthropic institutions that have already blazed this path. Here are a few strategies that might help.
Create opportunities for decision making, not just input. Largely in response to last summer’s national racial reckoning, many foundations pledged to involve those closest to the problems they seek to solve in the grant-making process. But what does that mean in reality?
The Gates Foundation, for example, says it has “sought input” from leaders from “communities of color, as well as teachers, parents, and researchers” as part of its education grant-making process in its home state of Washington. But it’s not clear how that input is used. Without such transparency, people are less willing to offer their time and insights and may assume, often correctly, that the request for input is mostly about optics.
The Brooklyn Community Foundation offers a good model for how to genuinely use community feedback. After transitioning from a private bank foundation to a community fund following the 2009 financial crisis, the foundation conducted more than 1,000 interviews with the borough’s residents to help identify funding priorities. When respondents consistently noted that they felt left out of decisions about the borough’s development, the fund launched a participatory grant-making program for the Crown Heights neighborhood, which makes grants to local organizations through a resident advisory council reflective of the area’s diversity. In one video of a council meeting, a young Black mother, a white activist, and a Hasidic Jew are shown productively and respectfully debating the merits of various projects.
Much larger philanthropic organizations have started to adopt similar approaches, typically for specific programs. For instance, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is deploying participatory grant making to address arts funding inequities in its home city of Chicago.
For years, the foundation’s arts grants went mostly to established entities such as symphonies and museums. A few years ago, a map of the foundation’s direct grant-making portfolio revealed that almost no arts grantees were based in the low-income or diverse neighborhoods that make up much of the city. In response, MacArthur brought in local leaders to find a solution, resulting in the creation of a diverse panel of community stakeholders to recommend slates of grant recipients for consideration to the foundation’s board. The panel recommended 10 organizations, which were each approved for multi-year general operating grants.
Accept grantees as partners — and prepare staff for a shift in responsibilities. Changes in the day-to-day role of staff are inevitable when participatory grant making is fully embraced. “Our role as program officers shifted to providing guidance, support, and information to the panelists so they could make informed decisions,” says Geoffrey Banks, senior program officer at MacArthur.
Such a shift is not without its challenges, as Amsterdam-based Mama Cash discovered when it decided in 2019 to transition its entire $4 million in yearly grant making to a participatory model. Like the Brooklyn Community Foundation, Mama Cash fully engaged its community of grantees and activists in the process. But unlike the New York organization, which was starting from scratch, Mama Cash, a powerhouse in feminist philanthropy for nearly 40 years, had an existing grant-making process that had been implemented for years by a dedicated staff. They would understandably have concerns about job security.
As it turned out, Mama Cash’s model did not cost anyone a job. Instead, staff responsibilities shifted from technocratic management to facilitation of the grant-making process. The staff now screens applicants to ensure eligibility and then offers input, guidance, and other support for the grantee-led process of whittling down an average of 1,200 applicants a year to a group of finalists. Decisions on which organizations ultimately get funding are made by a committee reflective of the people the grants are intended to serve, as well as Mama Cash staff.
Rather than handing down decisions from on high, the staff are fully engaged with community members as partners. For grants director Coco Jervis, the process has been as much a mind-set shift as a shift in process. “The hardest thing we’ve had to do internally is to reorganize ourselves in order to learn how to share power,” she said. “It’s an evolving process.”
The Gates Foundation is no Mama Cash. But that doesn’t mean it can’t learn from such organizations about how to bring participatory grant making into its own high-profile transition process. Adding more board seats and filling those seats with people close to the problems the foundation seeks to solve would be promising first steps. But true transformation will only come if the foundation commits to changing how it doles out its billions.