A recent publication by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, titled Do Nothing About Me Without Me, raises some vexing questions about the proper division of labor between foundations and the communities they aim to serve.
It’s not unusual for a foundation initiative to be “resident-led” up to the moment when the funder—rather than the residents—decide that facilitators, trainers, or other professionals are required for some aspect of the job. At this point a “grassroots” project begins to lose its “bottom-up” character.
Along these same lines, when funders go about the business of identifying “indigenous leadership” in a neighborhood, they’ll often search for people who share their values and behave accordingly. On several occasions I’ve seen resident leaders develop some very strong ideas of their own and begin to lose favor with the grantmakers who “empowered” them in the first place. We might call this “funder hegemony by proxy.”
We seldom discuss these dimensions of stakeholder engagement, but should. As grantmakers or donors we can’t have it both ways. We cannot, in my view, claim bragging rights for supporting a community’s right to self-determination while we continue to call the shots and stack the jury. If good sense requires the latter, then we need to own up to it and press the case against those for whom resident judgments and values and experiences are the measure of all things.