27th November 2023
In this guest article Natasha Friend, Director of Camden Giving – a London-based participatory grantmaker – asks why we have become so uncomfortable allowing emotion into professionalised philanthropy, and whether something is lost as a result.
by Natasha Friend
If you stop and think about the things in your life that you have done really, really well – be that raise a child, bake a cake or throw a party – there is probably a common theme to them: they were done with love. Sometimes that love will have been so great that you cried. But when it comes to philanthropy, crying isn’t part of the mainstream. In fact, I recently suggested to a room of philanthropists that love could be a common value in their work and they laughed.
This is probably the biggest argument there is for participatory grantmaking; that grants should be awarded by people who readily bring their love and tears to gifting money. Because the things we do with love, tend to be the things we do really, really well.
At Camden Giving, a participatory grantmaker in London, we’ve worked with 260+ people who have awarded grants with us. All of them are regular people – the people you walk past in the street – yet all of them are also exceptional people, the sort of people that step forward when others need them. Most will never have given a grant before and all have a personal reason to need life in Camden to get better, be that for themselves, their family or their community. It’s not uncommon for people to cry as part of the process; so much so that we always have a “spare” person in meetings who can support people if they need a shoulder.
There are a few consistent things that people who cry say to us including “I’m relieved that what happened to X won’t happen again” and “sorry”. Recently someone welled up whilst grantmaking with us. Camden has lost too many young people to violence, and one woman who joined our participatory grantmaking process cried when a grant was awarded to a youth safety project. She has known young people who are no longer with us and felt each murder as if it were a crime against one of her own children. For her, it was a huge relief to be part of the process of ensuring that other young people were going to be safer.
But why do we apologise for crying over philanthropy, and what has led us to this point?
We’ve turned away from the possibility of philanthropy as a healing practice
Small, everyday philanthropy embraces humanity and healing. It’s normal to expect someone who has lost a loved one to donate, or to encourage others to donate, to an organisation focused on the cause of their loved one’s death. Money is given with love and care, but as the number of zeroes on a donation increases, it is often assumed that we need to move away from giving with our hearts and start giving with our heads instead.
But if a £10 donation to Cancer Research has the ability to make a grieving friend find some peace, then imagine what £1million of participatory grantmaking does to a whole community who are grieving or struggling. Participatory grantmaking may or may not be more ‘effective’ than traditional philanthropy in terms of the direct impact of the grants made (there are various attempts to measure that, but we’ll probably never really know); however, it undeniably does have a significant and measurable impact on the communities who get involved in deciding how the grants should be made.
Making a sizable donation as part of a healing process is simply not an option for a large number of people in London; which becomes a healing justice issue when you consider that Londoners with limiting disability are eight times more likely than non-disabled Londoners to be going without buying basics and Black Londoners are nearly 3 times more likely to be struggling to make ends meet.
Edgar Villaneuva’s work on Decolonizing Wealth includes steps for using money as a healing tool, and argues that money can and should be used to undo some of the trauma that it has caused to colonised communities, but in the UK too few foundations are embracing this approach, and they are too distant from the communities they work with. (Editor’s note: if you want to hear more about Edgar’s work, you can listen to him discuss it with WPM Director Rhodri Davies on an episode of the Philanthropisms podcast).
Philanthropy should be ‘professional’
My colleagues and I are paid for our work, and like most participatory grantmakers, we pay the people who make decisions about our grants as well. We do that with respect for their knowledge and time. Professional work carries an expectation that we conform to the norms of workplaces, and that means everyone from bankers to train drivers don’t cry while they’re on the clock. But if paying people to do philanthropy means we’re forcing them to think about giving in the same way, are we losing something important in that process?
I’m a fully signed up member of the participatory grantmaking fan club, but what those developing the PGM field need to ensure is that they are creating space for all the emotions that people potentially bring to the table when they make decisions about giving.
Emotions aren’t ‘effective’
There are a lot of things that should be better in this world: that’s why most of us in civil society do the work we do. It’s natural that we want to do the most we can with the resources available to us. I get asked a lot of questions about participatory grantmaking, but number one is always “how do you know participatory grantmaking is more effective than traditional grantmaking?”. The answer is that in one sense I don’t: I can never be completely sure that a grant awarded with love and tears is more effective than a grant awarded by an algorithm, but what I do know is that the healing of people and communities that comes through the process is valuable beyond anything I could dream of measuring.
We live in a world where the idea that people with more money are cleverer than people with less money has become part of everyone’s social conditioning. And in the UK the echelons of the very wealthy are not especially diverse, so this immediately brings to mind an archetype that is very narrowly defined in terms of gender, ethnicity and sexuality. In an attempt to appear clever and be effective grantmakers, are we too often simply performing traits that are associated with this narrow conception of wealth and at the same time reinforcing Western patriarchal norms? Imagine, instead, that in philanthropy workplaces we allowed emotions to sit on the outside of our bodies to show each other how deep this work runs for us, and how effective that might be.
Religion isn’t part of mainstream funders decision-making
Many of the people who make decisions through participatory grantmaking are motivated in large or small ways by their faith. I’ve never seen someone cry because awarding a grant to a project aligns with their faith, but I do see that participatory grantmaking is helping them be the person they want to be within their community.
Those with significant wealth have long been able to establish individual or family foundations that allow them to make faith-motivated grantmaking decisions, but the beauty of participatory grantmaking is that large numbers of people now get to do that. Mainstream funders often tense up at the very mention of religion, and I’m not suggesting that everyone working in philanthropy needs to be guided by a faith, but I do think we need to honour the fact that helping people be the whole and best version of themselves is something that participatory grantmaking has within its gift.
Grantmakers should ‘keep out of the way’
There’s a narrative amongst progressive grantmakers that says: “our grantmaking shouldn’t be about us, our grantees are the stars of the show”. And what comes with this well-intentioned belief is a feeling that grantmakers’ emotions should not inform their work or their decisions. But it seems somewhat odd that we expect grantees to do work with their hearts, yet we don’t expect funders to do the same. The grantmaker-grantee relationship then becomes often little more than a contract managed on a grantmaking platform, and we have reduced the act of giving down to a form that you sign online.
Even if funders are motivated by deep emotions, there’s absolutely no way to show that. I once asked one of our funders why they fund us and the grants manager said “you meet the aims of the strategy document that was written before I started”, which is a remarkably transactional answer! When a youth project that Camden Giving funds asks me that same question, however, I’m able to say that “we funded you because the young people who made the decision really, really care about the work you are doing, they think you are exceptional and they’re banking on you being able to save the lives of their friends”.
The brilliant work being done by The Relationship Project, shows the importance of relationships in finding solutions to complex challenges. Good relationships are not formed on CRM software, they are formed by funders being open and vulnerable to the importance of the work they are doing.
Do an Emotion Audit
If you are part of a philanthropic organisation, I would suggest asking yourself some questions about where crying (or deep emotions) could inform your work. There’s so much to be gained from allowing our emotions, and the emotions of others, into decision making about funding; but we rarely do, as a result of systemic norms that I would argue are in many ways damaging. So have a think about these questions with your colleagues to move you along a journey to becoming a more emotional organisation.
- Are we too busy to feel deep emotions?
- Who does our philanthropy heal?
- Could we do more to heal the pain of others through philanthropy?
- Are we helping the people involved in our grantmaking to be the version of themselves that they want to be in the world?
- Have your grantees ever seen someone who is part of your organisation behave with love?
If our vision for effective philanthropy is one that repairs wounds and brings communities closer to each other, then we need to get better at embracing the emotions of philanthropy.
Natasha is the Director of Camden Giving, an independent charity and participatory grantmaker set up in 2017 that works towards ending local poverty and inequality in Camden.