Reflections from our Participatory Grantmaking Project Manager

Author: Nissa Bisguier, Participatory Grantmaking Project Manager

The 2023 Community Experts Team just wrapped up its grant review, after coming together again with a mix of seasoned and brand-new members to determine the distribution of $215,000 to programs supporting youth. This year, the team was composed of 16 team members with lived experience, with origins from counties in Massachusetts and New York within the Tower Foundation’s focus areas.

Two years ago, I was connected to The Tower Foundation, knowing little about their recent efforts to incorporate participatory grantmaking into their framework. I joined the force to redesign what was then the Advisory Team, sharing feedback about how to better include the voices of people with lived experience into grantmaking decisions. Soon after, I had a go at being a part of the Community Experts Team itself; not only having input on which grant applications would receive funding, but creating an RFP with a group of my peers and seeing the grantmaking process through from beginning to end.

Last year, I remember thinking that it would be tough for us to come to an agreement on what to fund, with every team member having different experiences, backgrounds, and opinions. I wondered if arguments would break out and whether some would walk away from the experience bitterly, without their top picks being chosen. To my surprise, the process went much more smoothly than I had expected. After we determined the criteria for coming to decisions, we all stood by that agreement, even when our individual selections weren’t favored by the team. Everyone was cordial and understanding of each other’s perspectives and we were able to review grant applications independently and later come to a shared decision on what to fund. 

Our ability to make a unified decision was tested even more on this year’s team, as nearly every grant application garnered support from at least one team member. There were hardly any applications that the team unilaterally disqualified from the running upon our first grant decision meeting. Despite the fact that my doubts during the previous year’s grant review had been dispelled and we had eventually been able to reach a joint decision, I once again felt the same worry that this year we may not finalize our choices in the allotted amount of time. However, after much deliberation, we again arrived at a conclusive decision about what to grant. What’s more, this year, I had the pleasure of having more frequent communication with each grant reviewer, due to taking on the role of Program Manager for this year’s iteration of the team. 

As a liaison between the Program Officers and the Community Experts Team, I gained insight into what team members felt challenging or rewarding about each part of the grant review process, and what we could improve about the process next time. I also got to witness my fellow team members wrestling with their own minds and carefully thinking through which applications best aligned with the Tower Foundation’s focus areas and the Community Experts Team’s values. We defended our own individual reasoning, and challenged each other to consider information another may have overlooked as we reviewed applications and conducted clarification calls with potential grantees to aid our decision-making.

As a result of so many of the applications having strong support, we engaged in a lightning round manner of pleaing our case for our top applications before a second-round of voting. The Community Experts Team employed a range of options for contributing their viewpoints, and I felt the passion and dedication of each person emerge via one platform or another. Some were most vocal in unmuting over Zoom, some in detailed survey responses, and others over rapid fire conversations in Slack or Zoom chat. I learned so much from the team; some of them bringing in examples from their lived or professional experience, personal encounters with an organization requesting funding, or independent research–pointing out new perspectives and shedding light on areas of an application I hadn’t previously considered. Each team member fiercely made their case, and then we reset, re-ranking our choices several times in between discussions of grant applications. 

We ended up reconfiguring our final rank towards the end of our final review meeting in order to fund a greater number of applications, taking a close look at the team’s priorities for this grant. It was very important to the team that as a collective, the chosen programs not only supported the healthy development of youth through a provider-to-youth relationship, but that they also promoted opportunities in which youth-to-youth connection became integral to the program. Grant applications that fostered community among peers and included youth in their program design and execution were especially meaningful to the team.

Ultimately, the 2023 Community Experts Fund received many outstanding grant applications, the quality of which made the funding decisions quite difficult. I commend the Tower Foundation for not only creating a space where youth feel empowered to share their thoughts on what they value, but for providing the backing for those contributions to have true consequence and generate a tangible impact in Community Experts Team members’ communities. Each iteration of Tower’s participatory grantmaking efforts have built upon the lessons learned from the previous cycle, and it was an absolute privilege to be part of the team again. I look forward to seeing how the Community Experts Team will continue to transform and flourish in the coming years. 

Photo by Kristaps Ungurs on Unsplash

NISSA BISGUIER, Participatory Grantmaking Project Manager

Nissa is originally from New York City and graduated Summa Cum Laude from the State University of New Paltz with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and Spanish, and a minor in Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies. She currently works as the Program Development Coordinator with The NAN Project – an organization dedicated to mental health awareness and suicide prevention. Nissa also volunteers as a Rape Crisis Counselor with Lowell’s Center for Hope and Healing and has been involved with the Tower Foundation’s participatory grantmaking program since 2021. She took on the role of Program Manager for the Community Experts Team in the summer of 2023, acting as a liaison between the CET and Tower Foundation Program Officers.