Participatory Grantmaking at the Tower Foundation: 2024

Author: Nicholas Randell

At the Tower Foundation, we are excited to advance our participatory grantmaking agenda on several fronts in 2024.  Before previewing these in this post, I offer a definition of participatory philanthropy from the Fund for Shared Insight..

Participatory Philanthropy: A philanthropy practice that explicitly includes the participation of  community members with lived expertise in a relevant issue area (non-funders) and shifts power from traditional foundation decision-makers to participants during any part of the philanthropy process and in the organization more generally, including strategy, planning, design, grantmaking, implementation, communications, fundraising, and/or evaluation. Participatory Philanthropy may include a variety of approaches to participation at different stages of the philanthropy cycle, and includes Participatory Grantmaking as one approach.

Through participatory grantmaking, we work to directly engage members of the community (and more specifically, representatives of the populations our grants are meant to support) to both learn from their perspectives and empower them to lend their voices (and votes!) to decisions that affect the places they call home.  We also hope that community voice will shape grantmaking strategy internally.  In 2023, we put our Community Change grant portfolio on hold for some re-examination.  Three community members joined a subcommittee that also included two staff members and two Trustees.  This subcommittee crafted new language and a sharpened focus for our community change work, launched anew for 2024, that will prioritize community-driven, collaborative work. [Visit Community Change Grant Guidelines for more information.]

What follows is an overview of what participatory grantmaking at the Tower Foundation will look like in 2024.

Community Experts Team

2024 will mark the third consecutive year in which our Community Experts Team will deliver an independent, member-crafted grant initiative, the Community Experts Fund.  To date, $415,000 dollars have been awarded to 21 agencies.  Again this spring, we will convene a group of about 16 young adults for a six-month grantmaking program.  Team members come from our funding areas in Western New York and Eastern Massachusetts, bringing insights gained from lived experience in the Foundation’s funding areas (mental health, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, substance use disorders).  Team members (generally from 18 to 30 years old) have included students, peer counselors, participants in youth leadership programs, and both staff and clients of Tower grant partners.  Participants receive a $1,500 stipend for participating.

The Community Experts Team comes together, primarily over Zoom, to explore the group’s funding interests, build a custom Request for Proposals, run a competitive grant cycle, and award a slate of grants to community-based non-profits in Tower’s funding areas.  Team members learn about philanthropy, grantmaking and grant review processes, while building personal communication and leadership skills.  Regional meet-ups to strengthen personal connections have included bowling, group dinners, escape room adventures, and oil painting.

The Community Experts Team is sustained, in part, by our own non-profit partners, past and present grant recipients that refer talented youth to the program and may offer accommodations to help them fully engage the opportunity.  Supports include technical assistance, web access, and time management coaching.  Partners receive an honorarium in recognition of their vital contributions.  Critical support is also provided by a Participatory Grantmaking Project Manager who serves as a peer contact for all  team members and takes on key program administrative duties.  Nissa Bisguier, who currently fills this role, is also a recent Community Experts Team member. [Nissa discusses her experience in this blog post.]

New this year will be a day-long, in-person retreat that will be held in Buffalo NY in September.  The retreat will include a dynamic grant review and decision-making process.  Nonprofit partners will be invited to send a staff member to join deliberations, broadening the range of community voices at the decision-making table.  We are looking forward to an exciting collaborative process and a fun day!

Community Grants Consultants

In 2023, we invited two community members with lived experiences in Tower funding areas to join the grant review process for the second of two Programs & Services grant cycles.   Catherine Baz and Phillip Mason, our first Community Grants Consultants, reviewed grant proposals right alongside Tower Program Officers, essentially working as extensions of the Foundation’s staff.  Catherine’s work has focused on helping individuals in recovery and who are in domestic violence situations. Previously from Massachusetts, she now lives in South Carolina. Phillip Mason is a healthcare administrator and disability rights advocate from Essex County, Massachusetts. Both Catherine and Phillip brought extensive experience with nonprofit organizations to the grant deliberations.  Ultimately, the blended review process resulted in $1.1 million dollars awarded to 13 nonprofits.

Staff members felt that the grant review process was enriched by new perspectives and lived expertise.  Accordingly, we will engage additional Community Grant Consultants for both of our 2024 Programs & Services cycles in 2024.  Community Grant Consultants participate in an orientation, independently review every grant received, and join staff for many hours of group discussion concluding with group consensus about which proposals to invite to complete a full proposal.  This initial stage is the competitive and more review-intensive part of the process.  From there, Program Officers work with the invited applicants to flesh out implementation and budget details. Most applicants invited to fine tune their applications through this process are subsequently approved for funding.  In 2024, Community Grant Consultants will be paid a stipend of $1,500 for each grant cycle that they participate in.