By Dennis Arends*
Senior Analyst – Effective Philanthropy Group (EPG) at Porticus
Shifting the power; making meaningful participation a reality
No system changes without meaningful participation
The list of global crises seems to be ever-growing. But for many people who live with them, these crises are not new. They have been dealing with them for much of their lives. Many of these crises are the result of persisting systemic problems and require an approach that changes the conditions that hold the problems in place.
As a philanthropic organisation whose mission is to create a just and sustainable future where human dignity flourishes, Porticus supports organisations and people to address these complex and deeply rooted social and environmental challenges. We are, however, just one of many foundations embracing a strategic and systemic approach to philanthropy.
According to system change thinkers, relationships between people make systems. If people make the systems, it means only they can change them. Solving systemic problems, therefore, needs the full and meaningful participation of people who live the systemic problems.
The way forward: Meaningful participation is everywhere
For more than 180 years, the philanthropic activities of the family behind Porticus were built on deep local engagement. This continues to be at the core of how we work today; building relationships and listening to the needs and solutions of our grantee partners. In 2020, Porticus defined a 10-year strategy which included a commitment to ensure meaningful participation of the people who are affected by poverty and exclusion in all our grants and programmes. Because we want to keep learning, growing, and improving.
This set us on a path. In March 2020, a Working Group dedicated to Meaningful Participation was created. Our aim? To figure out how to operationalise our 10-year goal. What were we already doing, and who could we learn from? What were the stumbling blocks that prevented us from being participatory?
Over 12 months, a group of 10 passionate colleagues conducted desk research, and interviews with smaller and bigger foundations, carried out surveys amongst staff and met with experts in the field. We quickly realised that meeting our 10-year goal did not only depend on our partners. For participation to be truly meaningful, we also needed to take a closer look at our own role as a funder. Not just being an active and compassionate listener but recognising that everyone from funders, grantees, and people with lived experience all contribute equally – some through finance, others through knowledge or first-hand experience. In essence, it came down to this key question – were we honouring one of the key grant-making principles and genuinely shifting and sharing power?
After an intensive year with fortnightly meetings, the group made a clear case for participation, delivered a comprehensive definition of meaningful participation, and created a multiyear plan with activities covering not just the design and implementation of grants; proposals were made around governance, communication, human resources, strategy development, and monitoring, evaluation, and learning. Meaningful participation clearly has a place everywhere.
With a little help from many friends
From the very start, the Participatory Grant-Makers Community has been an anchor in this learning journey. Its members have generously responded to our questions, shared with us essential reading, and have been gracious with their time and insights. In the spirit of true participation and sharing power, we initially presented our results through a webinar in September 2021. However, this was all done online and did not feel like truly giving back to the community. As soon as the Community was able to start organising in-person meet-ups, together with Ariadne and EDGE Funders Alliance, Porticus jumped on the opportunity to host a meet-up in Brussels towards the end of 2022.
Keep at it, don’t stop, and never get enough
The attendance was overwhelming; it was a wonderful opportunity to meet many of the people who had helped us and meet others with rich experience in participatory philanthropy. It also confirmed a key lesson learned during our journey: do not be afraid of making mistakes, just get started, don’t stop, and along the way count on the many people who have experiences to share.
So where are we now? At Porticus, we are working on a detailed roadmap, with goals, indicators, and targets, along with six broad pillars of participatory philanthropy. The language we are using has changed. Colleagues have started or deepened participatory practices in their grant-making and programme development and implementation, and we have become much more conscious of the importance of lived experience and the need to diversify our own staff. We are only getting started and still have a long way to go, but we are confident that Porticus in 2030 will not be the same as Porticus today.
*Dennis Arends is a Senior Analyst for the Effective Philanthropy Group at Porticus. Based in Amsterdam, Dennis provides strategic advice on Strategy, Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning. He holds an MSc in Development Economics from Erasmus University Rotterdam, in The Netherlands. A social economist with a keen interest in inclusive development and overcoming inequality through multi-stakeholder partnerships and influencing systems, Dennis has lived and worked in six different countries. Work experience includes child and human rights, multidimensional poverty, public policy, and education in displacement and migration. As part of his work within effective philanthropy and driven by a strong belief that participation is an integral and indispensable part of good philanthropy, Dennis has been leading a working group on meaningful participation, with the aim to make Porticus’ philanthropic practices more participatory and inclusive.