A participatory approach to funding climate justice: Learnings and challenges

Greg Hilditch is interim executive director for Global Greengrants Fund UK, which is featured in Candid’s new funder’s guide to climate justice, Centering equity and justice in climate philanthropy. This post is part of a series highlighting case studies featured in the guide. Learn more or download the guide here.

It's not only who or what you fund that matters, it's also how you go about it. That's part of the underlying rationale for participatory and trust-based approaches to philanthropy, and it's a theme that runs through Candid’s new guide on funding for climate justice work, Centering equity and justice in climate philanthropy.

Climate justice approaches recognise that the world's gravest ecological, economic and humanitarian crisis is inextricably joined with the struggle of marginalised peoples for their rights, wellbeing and livelihoods; and that the root causes of the climate crisis are the same as those that oppress and exclude women, racialised working-class communities, Indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, and all others affected by systematised disadvantage. Philanthropy itself is also a part of this complex picture, and so it’s no surprise that funders aiming to tackle these deeply intertwined issues are also engaging in practices that seek to address the power imbalances within philanthropic giving.

Participatory grantmaking – a term that includes an incredibly diverse range of practices – has emerged in recent years as a particularly valuable approach for justice-oriented funders who want their work to reflect their values and to incorporate a systems change perspective. An earlier Guide from Candid, Deciding Together, served to demystify participatory grantmaking, and the global Participatory Grantmakers Community has recently emerged to help support and advance the practice.  Participatory grantmaking is based on a very simple idea: that the people most affected by a problem have the best understanding of it, and are also best placed to provide a solution. Participatory approaches also, crucially, transfer power from the traditional gatekeepers within philanthropy to people and communities who have often been excluded from decisions that deeply affect them.

Elevating community expertise

Global Greengrants Fund was established in 1993 to channel resources and power directly to local, grassroots environmental justice initiatives. Although the discourse, practice and community around participatory grantmaking was far less developed then compared to today, it rapidly became clear that putting local expertise at the heart of decision-making was not only the most effective way to fund grassroots initiatives around the world – it was also the only way to truly incorporate a justice lens into this type of philanthropic work.

This perspective has underpinned the slow, organic evolution of our current grantmaking practice, in which a network of over 200 local advisors – activists, community leaders, researchers, citizen journalists – identify grantee partners, award small grants of five to ten thousand dollars, and (where it is welcomed by our grantee partners) provide long-term mentorship and capacity-building support that is based in trust and solidarity.

Because the work we fund is determined solely by the strategies of our grantees and of the advisors who fund and support them, our portfolio of over 16,000 grantees is exceptionally diverse – from direct resistance to fossil fuel extraction, through youth-led conservation projects, to championing feminist leadership within climate activism. Yet globally, climate justice is by far the single most prominent theme emerging from this portfolio, representing 51% of our grantmaking and aptly reflecting the scale and urgency of the crisis for communities on the frontline of fossil fuel extraction, deforestation, flooding, wildfires, drought, rising tides and extreme weather events.

Currently, Greengrants awards over 1,000 grants per year to local environmental justice initiatives through this network of advisory boards, sister funds, and specialist NGOs. Our advisory network and our grantmaking have grown substantially in recent years, and as we grow, the organisation is undertaking a phase of learning and reflection with our stakeholders, seeking to capture and reflect on the past thirty years of supporting local movements, and in doing so to ensure that we are equipped to continue strengthening these grassroots initiatives in the face of rapidly accelerating climate breakdown.

While this process is in its early stages, from our conversations and reflections so far, we have identified some key lessons on the challenges and opportunities that our participatory approach to grantmaking brings for climate justice funders:

Fostering learning within climate justice work

51% of all of the initiatives Global Greengrants Fund supports are explicitly focused on addressing the impacts and root causes of the climate crisis: communities mobilising against mining and other forms of extraction; activists gathering evidence to support strategic litigation against new fossil fuel infrastructure; youth groups leading action to strengthen local resilience against extreme weather events.

Yet virtually all of the work we fund intersects with climate justice to some extent: local conservation work is driven and constrained by climate impacts; regenerative agriculture helps to mitigate emissions from farming while also supporting biodiversity and traditional rural livelihoods. In some regions where activism and civil society faces constraints from governments and others, groups may also be doing climate mitigation or adaptation work, but avoid using climate language to describe their work.

The holistic nature of the work we support is one of the strengths of our approach, but it also raises a challenge: how do we make sense of a portfolio that is so diverse, and draw learnings from our grantmaking that can strengthen the model and ultimately strengthen climate movements?

One approach which we are beginning to test involves thinking differently about our relationship with grantees. Rather than Greengrants funding being the thread that draws these disparate pieces together, we aim to become a ”decentralised learning hub” in which we create self-sustaining communities of practice among our advisors and grantees, and funding becomes only one part of how we foster connections between and within movements. For example, a number of our advisors have been working together to share best practices in grantmaking for Indigenous communities, and another learning cluster has recently formed to incorporate a disability inclusion lens across our funding work.

Defining impact

As an intermediary, an important role we play is to mitigate risk for both grantee partners and other philanthropic actors. But mitigating risk also involves being able to address a number of challenging questions around impact, particularly for funder partners who are newer to supporting movements work. Intuitively, we know that the grassroots climate justice work we support has real impact on mitigating emissions while securing communities’ rights and demonstrating more just, equitable alternatives. Yet attribution is a major challenge in this type of work, especially given the nature of our grantee partners – most of whom have no resources for impact evaluation. So, how can we best understand, and communicate, the impact of our grantees’ climate justice work?

Our approach to date has been to emphasise movement strengthening within our evaluation and learning framework, which enables us to focus on the extent to which our grantee partners are well connected with one another; able to access key resources and knowledge; and how successful they are in engaging with their communities. As we grow, there is tension inherent in the need to find new ways of demonstrating the mitigation impacts of climate justice work without diluting this emphasis on movement-building.

Power and privilege in participatory grantmaking

The third question that is emerging from our learning and reflection process is the nature of power and privilege within our work. Our model has evolved, organically, over the past three decades as an attempt to upend some of the power dynamics in philanthropy. As we approach our thirtieth year, how can we ensure that our intention to shift philanthropic power is also reflected in the ways we operate as an organisation? From a climate justice perspective, this means bringing an intersectional lens to our work:

  • Assessing our grantmaking to better understand how far it enhances the leadership and voices of women, Indigenous people, youth, people with disabilities and other groups who have historically been marginalised and who are on the frontlines of climate breakdown.
  • It also means having difficult conversations about gender justice, racial justice and class privilege within our staff and our advisory network. And,
  • Undertaking efforts to become a less hierarchical and more decentralised in how we operate as an organisation.

Our approach to funding grassroots climate justice action is far from the only one, and Global Greengrants Fund is part of a far stronger community of practitioners of participatory grantmaking than anybody would have believed possible in 1993. As we look to the enormous challenges of this now and in the years to come – years that are absolutely critical in the struggle for climate justice – learning and exchange with others will be more important than ever. Candid’s valuable new resource documents our own experience and perspectives along with that of a variety of diverse philanthropic actors now also supporting climate justice work bringing together lessons learned from across a broad spectrum of the field. We look forward to continuing to learn together as a form of field building that will allow us to better meet the demands of the climate crisis.

A participatory approach to funding climate justice: Learnings and challenges


About the author(s)

Interim Executive Director
Global Greengrants Fund UK