Participatory grant-making works!

women_riseParticipatory grant-making helps to shift power relations in Mexico.  Powerful results surfaced when a Mexican women’s rights funder began to give decision-making power to local activists.
By Jenny Barry

Recovering the values of feminist philanthropy

Fondo Semillas’ participatory grant-making journey started within the framework of a strategic planning, during a process to build consensus around our institutional values and principles as a grantmaker. To do so, we divided into working groups that included staff and board members, current and former grantees, and other key allies from the Mexican feminist movement. These groups highlighted values that are central to the fund’s feminist identity, such as shared power, inclusion, horizontality, and diversity. Through these conversations, we reflected on the extent to which our own practice of resourcing women’s rights mirrored these ideals. We agreed that it was imperative to pay closer attention to the politics of how our grant-making was carried out—who is included and excluded, what style of leadership is recognized, as well as how decisions are made and agendas set.

In our 27 years of funding women’s rights activism, we have learned that it is not our role to be prescriptive in our grant-making by pushing for specific policy changes. Rather, our experience is that these changes are the result of a strong feminist movement, which also plays a critical role in resisting setbacks and preserving previously-won victories for women’s rights. We soon realized that it was somewhat hypocritical to assert that grassroots women are the experts on the issues facing their communities, while not fully involving them in decisions regarding how to allocate funding to grassroots women’s groups. Previously, Fondo Semillas made grantmaking decisions with the support of small selection committees made up of staff and board members, as well as a few experts who were sometimes—but not always—former grantees. We decided that, in order to truly reflect our values, grassroots feminist activists had to play a much more central role in the decision-making process.

Defining participation

The term “participation” gets thrown around a lot without much clarity. Many different models of participatory grantmaking exist, some of which include representatives of certain movements or communities in grantmaking decisions, while others involve the applicants themselves.

With the support of current and former grantees and other feminist allies, Fondo Semillas reviewed existing models and ultimately decided to include two main forms of participation in its new selection process. First, Fondo Semillas hosted a forum with 40 diverse representatives of the Mexican feminist movement. Fondo Semillas selected the representatives based on their availability, knowledge of specific regional contexts, and areas of thematic expertise. After reviewing the organizational profiles of potential grantees, the forum participants engaged in small-group discussions regarding the status of feminist organizing in Mexico, first by region and then by thematic area.

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Out of Darkness, Towards the Light

Darkness to lightThe long, dark year is over. Months of life-threatening illness combined with money problems to make my 2017 a year not to be repeated and best forgotten. It has been a challenge both personally and for the IMAXI Cooperative, which was also down and out for months at a time. The darkness obscured the route ahead, and our important research project on participation in global health institutions, All Aboard, had to be halted before it arrived at its final destination.

It was not the first year in which some of IMAXI activities had to be postponed or cancelled due to our members, all volunteers, falling either seriously ill, seriously skint or just blown off track. Yet 2017 will be the last. The Board of the IMAXI Cooperative has decided at its recent meeting to change its way of working so that a crisis affecting individual members does not derail all of our collective efforts. In short, we recognise that our all-volunteer approach to functioning must change, and that resources should be found so that project teams are supported both financially and materially. The failure of one individual’s health or finances must not bring the collective’s progress to a full stop again.

 This change requires that the Cooperative establish a revenue stream independent of the projects that we develop. We are presently studying three different ideas which could possibly deliver sufficient income to provide some support for our activities and the activists who work on them. This would be a major relief as IMAXI has tried to function only through our own donations since it was established in 2010. Since we are all poor, living with disabilities or diseases, this system may have been appropriate to ‘start-up’, but it is no longer workable. So we are down in the IMAXI Forge, designing some prototypes for our own use. In the next few weeks we will decide which of these would work best.

After a year often derailed in the darkness, we are now beginning to roll forward. We can not only see the light at the end of this long tunnel, but can almost breathe the fresh air that awaits us. From full stop to full speed ahead, soon.