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Participatory Grantmaking: A Brief Introduction

Updated: Oct 11, 2022

The Bristol Local Food Fund has reached the exciting stage of recruiting a Citizens Panel so that the £57,000 raised last December can start to be distributed to Bristol community food projects through the process of Participatory Grantmaking. We thought it would be a good idea to explore why we’ve opted for this process over traditional grantmaking, and how we think it could empower communities to build resilience for the future. What is Participatory Grantmaking? Participatory Grantmaking (PGM) has various definitions, but most interpret it as a process that shifts funding power to the communities that grants seek to support. That is, it places decision-making on how and where financial support is used in the hands of the people who have lived experiences of the issues that need funding.

This differs significantly from traditional grantmaking, where charity or third sector organisations (including community food projects) have to apply for funds from grant-giving bodies such as trusts or foundations, which set their own criteria about and how and where the money can be used. It’s important to consider the lack of diversity in such organisations, which often leads to grant-givers having a poor understanding of the multifaceted needs of the communities they aim to support. What does traditional grantmaking mean for community projects?

A further constraint of traditional grantmaking is that the application processes can be very demanding, often requiring applicants to submit long detailed essay-like texts about their projects, impact data, financial records, spending plans and so on. In principle, these are sensible practices for grant-givers, but can create an unequal playing field for small community groups who are far more stretched for resources than bigger organisations applying for the same grant. And then if they are successful, they often have to spend funds in ways which may not effectively address the most urgent needs in their local community.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example. Keira runs a free food service from a neighbourhood mosque in Fishponds. The number of people using the services is growing but, as the kitchen is so small, she can only cook a certain amount of meals and have a maximum of two volunteers safely preparing food there.

She’s spent a few days applying for a grant from an established funding scheme and has finally been awarded £5,000, but it stipulates that the money should be spent on food and equipment and cannot be spent on overheads, including rent. This means that Keira can’t move the services to a larger commercial kitchen which is available around the corner, which would allow her to take on more volunteers, serve more people and ultimately further support her community. If, instead, the money had been funded from a PGM fund, those at the helm of the

criteria-setting might have used their local knowledge and experience to better inform their decisions. They would have been aware that space rental is a key financial restriction facing community food projects in the city and could ensure the fund criteria didn’t unnecessarily restrict the ability of projects such as Keira’s to expand her much needed services. Why choose Participatory Grantmaking? As we saw with the above example, there are practical benefits to grantmaking

decisions being made by the people who have an in-depth understanding of their own community’s needs. It can mean that more requirements are met, less time and resources are wasted by applicants and funding is used in the most impactful way.

As well as meeting more of the immediate short-term needs of local residents, adopting PGM could have the potential to help communities prepare for future challenges and long-term problems. By giving over the power to make decisions, grant-givers help to nurture a sense of community ownership over local decisions.

Recently, there has been a growing call for building community food resilience. The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated the power of local communities to swiftly respond to system shocks, and showed how these responses were more effective and efficient in neighbourhoods where there had been long-standing community engagement and collaboration. This was especially the case with community food projects, which became stalwart beacons of support for millions of households across the UK during and beyond the pandemic. Community food projects are now being recognised as essential components in building a resilient landscape to face future food system challenges.

So, how is PGM relevant to community food resilience?

Community decision-making is a key component of building community food resilience. Bristol Local Food Fund, our partners and many others believe this must also include how and where grant funding is awarded. If communities have a say in how money is awarded locally, areas that have been under-invested in could receive more support and these communities could have more control over directing positive change in their neighbourhoods in future. This is why the Bristol Local Food Fund set out to create a different type of funding scheme for food insecurity in the city, one that shifts monetary and decision-making power into the hands of locals so that we can keep building a stronger, more resilient food system that puts today’s and tomorrow’s communities first. We’re excited to be pioneering this process in Bristol, and hope it might be the start of a more empowering, representative and equitable way of tackling food insecurity.

Thanks for reading!

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