Empathetic grantmaking through grantee representation

The best grantmakers are empathetic grantmakers - they have a real understanding of the communities they serve. One way grantmaking panels and advisory boards can develop this understanding is by ensuring community representatives are among their members. Such grantmakers can count their decision-making processes - not just their grants - as part of their contribution to social change.

Why should we bother with community representation?

The US-based Grantmakers for Effective Organisations (GEO) says lack of strong connections between grantmakers, grantees and communities can be a major barrier to philanthropic effectiveness. The way to make strong connections, GEO says, is through empathy. It says that when grantmakers are genuinely empathetic:

  • change occurs more quickly;
  • innovative solutions take hold;
  • philanthropy is more efficient and effective; and
  • not-for-profits are stronger.

Empathy is the ability to step outside ourselves and understand other people's experiences, motivations and feelings. Widespread empathy means that instead of going through the motions day to day, grantmakers have a "firsthand, gut-level understanding of the work of grantees." It is possible because "they have felt the change they're seeking through direct, on-the-ground experience."

GEO CEO Kathleen Enright explains that in large groups, we lose our intuition for what is going on outside that group. This can create grantmakers who are out of step with the people they are supposed to serve. Bringing community members onto your decision-making committees can bring you back into step with the people you serve.

How would we do it?

  • You can build in empathy directly, by inviting community members to sit on your decision-making panels or advisory boards, or indirectly, by employing staff or taking on volunteers who have experience working with your client group.
  • You could allocate a percentage of board positions to community members (say 50%, for example), or run all staff assessments past a community advisory board.
  • You could seek out projects to support rather than taking unsolicited applications, and you could do this by working closely with community representatives to identify both problems and possible solutions.
  • You could advertise for community representatives and put applicants through an interview process.
  • You might invite community representatives to attend every board meeting, or perhaps only every second board meeting.
  • If you give money to a particular community sector - children's causes, for example - you might seek advice from that sector. There is nothing stopping you from taking advice from children. You just might pair them up with a mentor, or work with their parents as well.

GEO's five steps to high-empathy grantmaking

  1. Make it about others, not about you - look at your strategies, policies, processes and requirements through grantees' eyes, and ask whether you're doing the right thing by your grantees. Understand how important it is for others to feel ownership of their work and priorities, and for you to remain behind the scenes.
  2. Get out of the office - visit and work with your grantees.
  3. Bring the outside in - bring community representatives onto your boards and committees.
  4. Invest in what it takes - bringing empathy into your grantmaking is going to mean changing your processes, systems and strategies.
  5. Lead from the top - start by reviewing your own work practices to assess how connected you are to the community you serve.

For more information take a look at the free GEO publication Widespread Empathy.