Participatory Grant Making – Reflections

Deciding Together Local Fund York Blog

Personal reflections of a Participatory Grant Making Process in York

Ali Spaul, Partnership Coordinator Two Ridings Community Foundation

I am supporting the facilitation of a participatory grant making process in York. Bringing together people from across the place to design and decide a fund of upto £250,000 which will go upstream to seek systemic change with and for people with lived experience of multiple and complex needs (a definition I’m still very much grappling with).   This blog captures my personal reflections, reflections of others, some of the tools, support and methods involved.

I will also share the feelings; struggles, joy and all.

Whistle Stop Summary

After months of hard work, relationship building, listening and engagement the big day was here.  April 28th 2021, 9 – 12.30am, session 1.

Let me tell you, two days later I am still energised.  The session was brilliant – everyone was engaged, enthused and committed to working together. Upon leaving the session the group expressed feeling; energised, connected, heard, intrigued and optimistic.

Don’t confuse brilliant with easy.  We had difficult conversation about services, seldom heard voices and race.  We also got practical and explored models of participatory grant making.  We were certain of our opinion, then heard someone else and changed our minds. We were challenged.

It was everything we hoped it could be and more.

Who is involved?

Sessions are planned and facilitated by four leads.  Our job is to hold the space, bring in methodology that enables everyone to be heard, manage the necessary administration, capture the learning, and manage the monster that is technology.

27 people make up the core group of participants.  On the day 21 were able to join the zoom.  Participants brought diverse experience, background, and perspective.  People in the core group identify as York residents, students, charity leaders, having lived experience of services, local authority staff, racial equality activists, artists and more.

Around the core group there are others who were unable to commit to participating in the regular (monthly) sessions but will support with input and wisdom from a short step away.

Beyond this we are connecting to our networks, our friends, neighbours and colleagues to ensure we’re bringing in knowledge and insight from far and wide.

What did session 1 look like?

This was a new group; some people knew each other to varying degrees.  Others didn’t know anyone in the group.  It was important to build relationships and connection.

We started with a check in – asking “What do we have in common” – turned out humour was a big thing.  Then we moved into a method of sharing called “Triad”.  Where people meet in groups of three, one listens, another speaks and a third witnesses.  This allows people time and space to share their thoughts without interruption, for deep listening and for feedback and learning.   The triads shared, “What made you respond to this opportunity and what do you hope to unlock?”.  The image below shows some of what was uncovered.

After a good break the group heard about models of participatory grant making (PGM).  Hannah Paterson, Churchill Fellow shared her experience in South Africa and the US researching PGM (see her simply brilliant report;  and subsequent peer networks she’s involved in (see Twitter @PGMComm).  Members of the group expressed that hearing about the stories of others experience in PGM enabled them to see that this could be fun…something that they had not previously considered.

In groups of five, the group scrutinised each model of PGM, seeing that each had positives and limits. This discussion and deliberation will continue in their Triads between now and the next session in May.  At which point, we will decide a way forward, which model(s) or element of each model(s) we will implement to enable grant making.  

How did the group form?

Collectively, the group kept returning to a fundamental concern.  Who is making the decision, is as important to consider as what decision is made.  There were some murmurings of “who are we to decide anything anyway?”, partly nerves but a wholly brilliant question.  

In the lead up to the first session there was months of outreach and work to shine a light on the opportunity.  Steps were put in place to remove barriers for people to engage.  An open call resulted in 71 people attending an information event and further conversations reached far beyond that number.  The core group are “first adopters”, and their experience will give other people the understanding, confidence and desire to get involved in the future.  We will learn from this process, what more we could do in future iterations?  Further, we acknowledge that we are missing some perspectives and we will do all we can to seek them.

However, this group is brimming with insight and we shouldn’t forsake all that in pursuit of the absent.  The group is competent and engaged and each perspective is valid.  We will step into our leadership and in doing so enable others to do the same over time.

What do others think?

“That was Awesome this morning.  It’s great that it’s allowing the boundary to be flexible for service users like me to be involved.   It is vital we keep the process as open as possible so others can join as it moves along.  Well I think this.  If we get it right in York then other areas in North Yorkshire will benefit as the model can be rolled outwards.”.

“It was a great session. Really different and I like the fact that it felt that progress was being made.”

Hannah Paterson, Churchill Fellow and known to many for her work in Participatory Grant Making, quotes Jamie Barn at Minnesota University (and I’m probably slightly miss quoting here but… “Participatory Grant Making is like ballet, you can describe it all you like but until you experience it you cannot understand it’s magic”.

This sentiment is shared by my brilliant colleague who shared that despite me talking to her about PGM until I was blue in the face, she had learned more in 20minutes with the group than in months of my efforts… “I was blown away by the passion with which my fellow breakout room mates spoke about their respective projects and interests, about groups I have never come across in my usual work but which are meeting really important needs and operating quietly under our radar as a funder.” Jackie, Programme Manager at Two Ridings Community Foundation 

Final Reflection (for now)

For me, this session and the work that will follow, is an opportunity to do something together and create lasting connections for long term impact.  A demonstration that collaboration and relationships alongside diversity, equity and inclusion principles; will not only be practiced but absolutely raise the work and increase the joy of it.

Speaking of Joy… I recently met (on Zoom of course) Anasuya Sengupta Co Founder of Whose Knowledge?, a global campaign to centre the knowledge of marginalised communities.  Within an hour, she had moved me, built my confidence and vocabulary and covered a lot of ground; highlighting the need to centre people in everything, how to value people’s wisdom not just relying on knowledge found in archives.  She even explained how the internet works in under five minutes!  

In the development of this work – and no doubt much of my future work I will think of what Anasuya reminded me; we cannot do what we cannot imagine and:

It is not enough to ask how we make our streets safe; we must ask how we make our streets joyful.  If we are not seeking a world of joy for all, we are not going far enough.

To find out more about what’s to come – see the image below or contact me on or Twitter @SpaulAli.

%d bloggers like this: