“Community Knows What Community Needs.” Inside CZI’s Participatory Grantmaking Program

October 2022. CZI staff with members of the participatory grantmaking review panel and supporters in Woodside, San Mateo County. Photo by Carla Dano-Arango.

Participatory grantmaking hasn’t quite gone mainstream in the way some some proponents may have hoped, and I suspect they aren’t all that surprised that this is the case. Setting aside the fact that standing up any new program requires a ton of work, the approach also requires funding leaders to abdicate a degree of grantmaking control and cultivate a whole new skill set among program staff.

And yet, the practice and the impetus behind it are becoming more relevant by the day across the philanthropshere, as funders pledge to share power and put the lived experiences of community members at the center of their work. Participatory grantmaking checks off each of these boxes — and then some. There’s also a growing body of evidence suggesting that funders can roll out participatory grantmaking practices that amplify the voices of community members in a way that isn’t all that disruptive or risky.

Consider the case of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s participatory grantmaking program, which has disbursed a total of $13 million to 139 organizations across 2021 and 2022. Along with the MacArthur Foundation, that makes CZI one of the largest philanthropic institutions to try the practice. CZI staff and community members with lived experience work together to evaluate and recommend applicants, with the funder’s program staff having the final sign-off. “Something that we always came back to was this idea that ‘community knows what community needs,’” said Curtis Yancy, CZI’s senior manager of community. “And it’s very rare that we see any change from what’s recommended.”

I spoke with Yancy, who is now turning his attention to year three of the program, about his experience in spearheading the work. His advice to other grantmakers on the fence? Let’s not overthink this.

Participatory grantmaking sounds big and challenging, but at the end of the day, you’re just getting folks from the communities that you’re looking to support at the table with you. It can look different than the way we did it, and that’s the beauty of it — you can design it to fit where your organization is at that time.”

Building out the program

Yancy told me CZI’s foray into participatory grantmaking was a natural outgrowth of its Community Fund, which has disbursed $26 million to 175 nonprofits across San Mateo County since its launch in 2017 after a series of community town halls. “There was always a high level of participation, it was part of the ethos, and as the work continued, the team wanted to have folks at the decision-making table,” he said.

CZI’s Community Fund doesn’t fund a set of focus areas. Instead, it supports organizations engaging in asset and power-building. This means that “most anything can come in through our RFA,” Yancy said, noting that, for example, “asset building” can accommodate organizations focused on health, education and basic needs.

Yancy and his team drew inspiration from participatory grantmaking advocate Cynthia Gibson, whose work helped CZI develop the program’s underlying architecture. Central to this work was creating a panel to review applications.

Yancy’s team determined that the panel would consist of community reviewers, CZI program staff, and CZI Community Team members (staff who volunteer from across the foundation) who oversee the Community Fund. Community reviewers need to be over 18 years of age, have firsthand experience as a member of a socioeconomically disadvantaged community, a strong connection with BIPOC communities in San Mateo County, and a passion for creating “community-centered solutions.”

Yancy and his team then reached out to current partners to get referrals for individuals who met the criteria. In 2021, the panel consisted of 11 external, 10 CZI staff and eight CZI Community Team members. The following year, it consisted of 11 external, 14 CZI staff and nine CZI Community Team members.

Rolling out a “learning series”

Once selected, the panelists convened for a “learning series” aimed at building camaraderie, discussing the fundamentals of grantmaking, and training them on how to review applications. The first session was on community-building. “We just shared our stories and connected, because you can’t be in a space with folks unless you have that first,” Yancy said.

Looking back, Yancy said that the first iteration was fraught with “philanthro-speak and jargon” — a forgivable transgression given the fact that, after all, CZI staff were professional philanthropoids working for a charitable giving vehicle (albeit an LLC). In response, he and his team redesigned the year-two curriculum to tailor its messaging toward panelists with lived experience. And whereas the first iteration was “very much content-driven, not as interactive,” the second round was “about half content, and half a reflection on content,” he said.

Yancy also stressed the importance of embedding transparency throughout the process. From the outset, panelists were told that while their recommendations would likely be approved, the final decision rested with CZI’s program managers.

Review and approval

The program received 150 applications in 2021 and 203 the following year. Applications are randomly assigned to panelists and each application is reviewed by two separate panelists. “We then calculate the standard deviation across all scores and shift the scores to fall within two standard deviations of one another,” Yancy said. “This is to increase inter-rater reliability and effectively add a control for bias, outliers or differences in individual review styles.” (Page seven of CZI’s case study of the program looks at this process in greater detail.)

Yancy’s team uses the scores to understand which organizations score the highest. Lastly, the team makes what he calls some “slight shifts” to ensure a good balance of support across geography and impact areas. That list is then recommended and goes through compliance, communications and program lead approval stages. All told, the training and review process took roughly 40 hours over the course of about two months.

In 2021, CZI awarded one-year grants through its participatory program. It boosted that amount to two years in 2022, and Yancy said it hopes to increase it further in the future. CZI also asks grantees to upload interim and final reports or walk through the reports on a phone call with CZI program leads.

A different kind of skill set

In most participatory grantmaking programs, foundation staff transition to an advisory role requiring soft skills like emotional intelligence and an ability to facilitate conversations, said Meg Massey, coauthor of “Letting Go: How Philanthropists and Impact Investors Can Do More Good By Giving Up Control,” in a 2021 interview with IP.

“Rather than saying, ‘You must do this to get our money,’” Massey said at the time, “staff will instead ask organizations questions like, ‘How do we move money in ways that are going to be impactful for you as a person affected by this challenge?’” 

CZI leaders recognized this need at the outset and made a conscious effort to staff its review panel with internal staff who had lived experience and a background in facilitation. “How we hired was really important for this, because the way that we’re going to connect with community members and think about the work is fundamentally different,” said Yancy, who led trainings on racial equity and facilitating sensitive conversations in previous stints in the nonprofit world.

“Having folks on our team who had lived experience and facilitation experience led to deeper relationships and more honest conversations,” Yancy said. “But it can be scary for folks in philanthropy, because that’s not the traditional role for a program officer.”

Ongoing evaluation and what’s next

Both years, CZI sent evaluation surveys to review panelists and community members. Program leaders made shifts to the process based on the feedback they received. Leaders also measure impact by tracking the Community Fund’s “accountability goals.” Metrics include percentage of grants that are general operating or core support and what percentage of supportive organizations are led by individuals as well as board members that are representative of the communities they are serving.

Yancy said that since CZI has introduced participatory grantmaking, a whopping 95% of its grants were classified as general operating support and roughly 75% of recipient organizations have leaders who are representative of the communities they work with.

One big change for year three of the program will involve the composition of the review panel. CZI invited review panel members from year one to revisit their duties the following year. However, going into the third year, CZI plans to recruit a new group of panelists to infuse the process with new energy.

Looking a bit further out, Yancy sees the review panel as a mechanism to bring more individuals from historically underrepresented backgrounds into the philanthropy leadership pipeline. “Trying to get into philanthropy was not easy,” he said. “It took reaching out to another person of color who answered my cold email and saw that I was a young Black male with lived experience trying to get into the space. It shouldn’t always be like that.”

Yancy’s perspective is a useful reminder that at a time when funders are obsessed with measuring impact, some of the most striking outcomes from a participatory grantmaking program can’t be easily plugged into a spreadsheet.

“The depth of relationships and the depth of connection that I and the team were able to build with our community members, and in turn with our partners, was unlike anything I’ve ever felt,” Yancy said. “It was absolutely amazing to be in space and time with folks from the community that we were looking at to support.”