Participatory is the New Normal: Impacts on Digital Strategy

We've read and heard a lot in recent months about more directed pushes to incorporate participatory grantmaking (PGM) and collaborative grantmaking principles into the way the philanthropic sector works. Across conferences and white papers, we see signals encouraging multiple and frequent points of inter-stakeholder collaboration over multiple points of a grant or project's lifecycle.

In particular, this model may be more effective with the impacts of COVID-19. Funders can no longer conduct physical site visits and long in-person meetings to assess how a project is going. Instead, funders, grantees, and beneficiaries may need to behave more like partners, keeping each other up-to-date more frequently and with shorter bursts of information. In many ways, this also supports a movement towards trust-based grantmaking, where funders and fund receipients work together to implement, listen, learn and adapt.

Many grantmakers have focused on tools like a grants management system (GMS) or a constituent relationship management system (CRM) in their digital strategy. These systems are key workhorses, like large active muscles in the body of your organization. However, in a participatory model (especially one that is physically distanced), the connective tissue between these muscles needs diligent attention as well. 

The systems that act as these tissues focus on communication, collaboration, and coordination between all partners in the grantmaking process - these tools encourage participation and support the day-to-day activities that help form trust. From effective brainstorming around grant program design, to collectively monitoring and managing the impact of a grant, a grantmaker will need to focus on solutions that smooth these exchanges of ideas and data. 

So whether you’ve been leaning into trust-based and participatory grantmaking for a while now, or are wondering how on earth you’ll relate with your partners and grantees in a physically distant world, consider the following:

Digital strategy

There are some immediate changes to digital strategy values that arise from moving towards collaborative and participatory grantmaking practices. In Grantbook's model, the values that quickly become more critical are:

  • Stakeholder-oriented: delivering strong UX to all stakeholders is key in ensuring tool adoption and smooth operations.
  • Stability of infrastructure: collaborative models often can work across multiple time zones, geographic regions, level of internet access, and device types—ensuring access across all these variables is tough, but important.
  • Enabling innovation: one benefit of participatory and collaborative models is that you can incorporate new information and feedback rapidly, as projects, systems, and the world changes—technology is critical in fostering agility.

Emerging service blueprint

Moving towards a higher level of fidelity from strategy, I started to explore a service blueprint for PGM and collaborative grantmaking. As part of my research, I read Grantcraft's case studies on PGM and started to distill the types of workflows, processes, and tools into an inventory.

From this data, I was able to build a first run at a service blueprint for the "average" participatory grantmaking process lifecycle.

An emerging service blueprint for Participatory Grantmaking. Click here to download as a PDF.


I'll continue to iterate on this, but there are already some emerging trends to consider if your organization is going to move in this direction—in particular, as I think about how often tool categories are or are not repeated throughout the lifecycle.

The decreasing role of the narrow GMS and its merger with CRM

In this emerging way of working, we see a decrease in attention and focus on application and reporting workflows and administration, reducing the amount of workflow stages and fixed forms that a system will need to carry. While budget and payment functionality is still needed, processes both before and after the award seem to get leaner, which can reduce the demand for complex grants management systems in your organization.

However this way of working is also more relationship-driven, which naturally elevates the need for a CRM (what data you collect is still up for debate and design). In many grantmaking organizations we've worked with, we've explored scenarios where you procure a GMS that integrates as a CRM, or a CRM that can also behave as a GMS. In a PGM/collaborative grantmaking scenario, organizations may begin to err on betting on a CRM system that can behave like a GMS due to reduced reliance and weighting on grants-only functionality.

Focus on the 4 C’s

In lieu of a heavy focus on the Grants Management System, grantmakers will need to procure, skill-up, and train their team and stakeholders in tools that support the 4 C’s:

  • Communication
  • Coordination
  • Collaboration
  • Convening
Examples of systems that support communication, coordination, collaboration, and convening.

Communication is a fairly straightforward piece of the puzzle. It covers tools that we use to engage in one-on-one discussions or smaller groups. While most of us still rely on email, participatory models demand more frequent and immediate communications. Therefore, investing in online messaging and video conferencing tools become key to reducing daily friction. Here, you’ll need to focus on a smooth experience across software and hardware. There is nothing worse for folks waking-up in unlucky time zones than to have a project meeting fail or the technology to be more bitter than their first sip of coffee.

One piece of the technology stack that we don't often get asked about is project management or co-ordination. In more traditional scenarios, completing activities outlined in the grant is primarily up to the Grantee, and they can elect to complete them how they wish. However, in a PGM/collaborative model where everyone acts in partnership, this dynamic changes dramatically—in fact, I would argue that the working dynamic that emerges may be closer to how departments in companies work together versus the transactional relationship between grantor and grantee.

The emerging challenge that will arise in selecting a project management tool is to understand and establish the culture and workstyles that will back the PGM/collaborative process. Will the partnerships be more waterfall in how they work, or will the collaborative nature naturally demand more agility? This will put your partnerships on a wide-spectrum of tools between tools like Microsoft Project to tools like Asana.

However, chatting and tracking is not enough - peers across organizations will need to be able to work synchronously, whether in the same document or on the same whiteboard in a brainstorm session. To collaborate effectively, organizations will want to get skilled-up and master online office productivity suites (e.g. GSuite, Office365), co-design tools like online whiteboards (e.g. Miro, Whimsical, LucidChart, etc.) and intranet tools to foster community and transparency (e.g. Trusted Family, Communifire, etc.).

Lastly, convening will take a whole new nature in a physically distanced world. While tools like Eventbrite helped with planning and executing in-person events, expecting high frequency physical gatherings going forward may be unrealistic. Fortunately, a slew of new tools like Hopin, ON24 and Adobe Connect provide ways to design online convenings that are as powerful as in-person ones. 

Investing in learning, implementing, and being pros at using these tools can help reduce the challenges presented by geographic distances, foster teamwork and build community.


Data sharing agreements and governance

With significant collaboration between funders, intermediaries, on-the-ground organizations and beneficiaries, data will be collected and shared across many lines at rapid speeds. Establishing clear rules around how data is fire-walled, retained and managed is key to protecting privacy and preventing an inscrutable data landfill from emerging.

As with every service, good data management requires:

  • People: who is responsible for which parts of data governance (both internal and external)?
  • Process: how is data cleaned and how are systems audited?
  • Tools: which solutions are storing which kinds of data, and what you may be using to manage and audit data?
  • Policies: what are the terms for how people, processes and tools work together?

Participatory grantmaking and collaborative grantmaking models have evolved as potential solutions for reducing the power dynamics between grantmakers and grantees. They also help organizations be more nimble and agile, consistently monitoring and adapting projects as we learn from early results that those closest to issues are entrusted with funding for solving them, and for learning quickly and adapting to the philanthropic needs of the world. However, to make them work, foundations need tools and systems that enable frequent communication and collaboration between multiple stakeholders, over multiple points of a project’s life cycle. 

While some grantmakers may be deciding if these models are right for them, the occurrence of COVID-19 and physical distancing has rocketed this need forward quickly. Even if you do not want to embrace these models whole-heartedly, investing in ways to digitally engage, collaborate and communicate with your stakeholders is now a new normal.


Participatory Grantmaking and Digital Strategy: Key take-aways for Leaders

If your organization is thinking about moving towards participatory grantmaking practices, there are a few things to consider for your tech roadmap and digital strategy. Even if you are not, lessons learned from participatory models have significant impacts on how grantmakers connect and work with stakeholders in a physically distanced world. 

  • If you’re relying on email only to communicate with your stakeholders, you will need to start quickly selecting and implementing instant message and video conference tools to reduce operational friction.
  • If you don't have any strong project management tools (i.e., you're using a spreadsheet), start thinking about moving towards a solution that fits your working style, from waterfall to kanban.
  • If you're about to pick a GMS or already have one, consider reducing the number of requirements that are focused on pre-awards management, and look to solutions that support post-award engagement. As you may be collecting less formal information more frequently, you need to build in more flexibility.
  • As you collaborate with more stakeholders, you'll be faced with different environments that need to be considered when optimizing online collaboration—from working in large offices to working in areas that lack high-speed internet access—an organization needs to reflect on the combinations of software and hardware that can allow teams in these environments to work well together.
  • Keep an eye on new conference/large-group convening tools—invest a few hours in exploring these solutions so you can understand the potential they bring to the table.

Grantbook's Service Subscription is an emerging support model that embeds Grantbook's strategic and tactical expertise on your team. Learn more about how we can support your ongoing digital transformation, or book a call with Nikki Barrett to discuss your tech challenges.

James Law

Director, Business Development & Innovation

Director, Business Development & Innovation

James Law has worked for 10 years in the social finance and social sectors, designing, exploring, and implementing technologies to help organizations activate mission and achieve impact.

He began working in lean non-profits, employing databases and constituent relationship management tools (CRM) to help track and aggregate data for land conservation and environmental protection. Moving into social finance, he managed the development of an application to administer community bonds and equity.

Moving to Grantbook in 2015, James dove head first into helping foundations—of all types—align on digital values, explore technology options, and select the best path forward. From there, he continued to explore solutions architecture and integrations, connecting best-in-class tools to meet the ideal needs of grantmakers, grantees, and all stakeholders. 

More recently James is investing in Grantbook’s use of service design tools—from personas to service blueprints—to increase resilience and reduce the risk of technology planning and adoption via human-centred thinking. He also helps rally and co-ordinate Grantbook’s new ideas and opportunities as philanthropy and technology change.