Institutional philanthropy is historically - and intentionally - structured to create a power imbalance through which a privileged few determine the allocation of resources (grant dollars). While the overrepresentation of certain (white, privileged, male, able-bodied, heterosexual, academically educated, etc.) viewpoints isn't always clearly articulated, it is nevertheless the result of dominant dynamics that are geared towards maintaining the status quo.1
With this power imbalance, decisions on who gets funded, and which issues, strategies and policies become funding priorities, are typically made with little or no input from affected communities, grant seekers or grantees. Dominant philanthropic approaches have led to over-investment in top-down strategies and policies, and under-investment in grassroots groups and community-led strategies.2
Grassroots organizers - especially low-income communities of color who are most harmed by environmental degradation, economic injustice and the climate crisis - are systemically excluded from crafting and implementing strategies and solutions, inherently making their efforts less financially sustainable, less effective, and less relevant. As a result, dominant philanthropic practices intentionally infringe upon the right to self-determination.3
Sharing power means distributing the actions of decision-making, program creation, implementation, and impact evaluation across all process participants, truly blurring any rigid divide between designer and participant, expert and beneficiary.
The most pressing environmental, economic and societal challenges require us reimagining the processes that lead to solutions. Moving towards equity, justice and liberation requires unlearning dominant practices - getting comfortable with different ways of distributing decision-making authority, embracing uncertainty, and collectively imagining and creating different ways to truly be in community. This is where the Grassroots Fund's Guiding Practices come in as a practical way to dig in to what that means as a day-to-day commitment across all activities.
Grassroots organizers offer critically important expertise and insights on problems, solutions and effective strategies based on their own lived experience. Without this participation and leadership, environmental, economic and social justice objectives will never be realized. Learning and innovation are spurred by difference, broad input, and reflection. Investment in community-led groups and strategies bolsters the environmental and allied movements with a key source of expertise, insight, energy and people power.
How we do what we do
The Grassroots Fund is part of a movement to disrupt the power imbalance at the community level and across philanthropy. We are committed to:
- Move resources - with a commitment to racial justice. We invest in and center reflection on (racial) bias, privilege and structural oppression. We create space for ongoing interactions and critical self-examination as a core part of the participatory process. We commit to justice and equity as an ongoing practice.
We grapple with: How do we continue to push practices and cultural ethos throughout the organization and throughout the participatory review process? How do we further our understanding of systemic barriers and deepen understanding of bias, privilege and systemic oppression?
- Shift power - with marginalized community members central in taking leadership in shared decision-making. When done meaningfully and thoughtfully, the shift in power dynamics activates more participants within a system, permanently changing the dynamic so that a far greater number of actors play creative leadership roles.
We grapple with: What are barriers to participation? What is the impact of participatory grantmaking on those participating, as well as on the applicants (as we develop deeper feedback mechanisms to share how participants view projects and where there is room for reflection).
- Change systems - with roots in equity and liberation. We accept that the system (not the people) is at fault for marginalization. We commit to reimagine a system that gives participants self-determination through community ownership and governance. This work is not about making marginally better an already intolerable state of affairs, but rather about prioritizing ways of interacting and creating together that liberate.
We grapple with: What movement is philanthropy an active part of? How do we design learning cycles that ensure we can learn alongside community organizers in real-time and make changes so that support is provided in ways that reflect current reality? How do we change culture so that key practices for equity and liberation are the natural way to imagine, plan and build together?
- Remain flexible - with a focus on transparency. Meaningful participatory decision-making requires flexibility as input is given throughout phases and iterations. Learning always moves faster on the ground than it does in institutions. To move beyond advice, we believe there has to be a commitment to co-create without essentials already having been decided. The work requires transparency and protocols about ongoing collective discussion about how input is incorporated, what isn't and why. It has to welcome multiple ways of knowing, and encouraging participants to let go of (their definition of) perfectionism to try new ideas as part of the collective input process.
We grapple with: How do we develop evaluation strategies that reflect that participatory processes necessitate constant change and tweaks with ongoing feedback from participants?
Why we commit to environmental work
We are committed to the principles of Just Transition - integrating ecological and social justice in to community vision - and we maintain an environmental lens to the work we support. The climate crisis is among the greatest challenges we face and we commit to continuously explore and reflect on the intersections of environment, economic and social justice.
Environmental degradation can't be understood without exploring justifications that place humans at the center of our environment and separate from natural systems. This mental and physical detachment enables humans to feel a limited or incomplete connection to nature, and has contributed to the notion that ecosystems are here for human consumption and extraction. It's a similar, dominant rational that promotes racism - one race as separate and superior to others. With environment as our key focus, we commit to exploring what it means to be in relationship both with one another and the natural world, exploring cooperative structures that dismantle centralization of power and control.
We take a broad definition of the term environment. This is not a set frame and shifts with ongoing input enabled throughout our participatory decision-making processes. We commit to promoting a culture and practices that ensure a broad range of lived experiences and perspectives can always weigh in to reflect on the intersections and definitions used throughout our work. This is why and where we welcome your voice. Please use the links below to navigate our programs and opportunities to connect.
- 1. Refer to Council on Philanthropy report: The State of Change: An Analysis of Women and People of Color in the Philanthropic Sector, 2017 for data.
- 2. The lastest research that came out from the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity report shows that only 8-9 percent of grantmaking from foundations goes in to communities of color (in the US).
- 3. We recommend Edgar Villanueva's 2018 book Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance if you want to dig more in to this topic.
- 4. We recommend 'The characteristics of white supremacy culture' from Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups by Kenneth Jones and Temu Okun as a first step to disrupt dominant (white supremacy) culture.