Fast or movement led? Both! Participatory Grantmaking can move fast

Participatory Grantmaking offers a lot to funders who are interested in sharing power - but one thing we thought it could not really do is move fast. An example from our pandemic response grantmaking shows otherwise. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic brought the first lockdowns in Germany in early 2020, we learned from the news that one group that was falling through the cracks of the social safety net were undocumented migrant sex workers. As the lockdown and social distancing eliminated their source of income; many found themselves isolated in a foreign country without proper documentation or a social safety net and as a result, were facing hunger and homelessness. 

Stepping out of our comfort zone 

Dreilinden is a dedicated LGBTIQ rights funder. We do not usually fund groups that include cis and straight people. But we are aware that a high percentage of people from our communities work in the informal sector, and that a high percentage of sex workers belong to our communities. So we decided to step out of our comfort zone and fund sex worker rights. 

Through social media we had heard about several initiatives that were started by people working in the entertainment industry and in sex work. Finally, through internet searches and through asking people in our networks for advice, we came across the union of sex workers in Germany, which already had an emergency response mechanism in place prior to the pandemic. We reached out and had a call, asking how much money they would like to have and how much they could absorb. The amount we offered was much more than they had expected, but they took the challenge because they knew well how much the money was needed. 

A challenge we faced was that we could not fund the organization directly - the union of sex workers is having a hard time becoming an officially registered organization with a tax exempt status in Germany. We took a route we usually take when we want to fund unregistered groups (which the German regulations for our benefit to the public status does not allow us to do): we went through a nonprofit organization that was able to channel the funds to the union. Of course, we put a percentage of the amount on top to compensate them for their efforts. 

Getting money out the door quickly 

The mechanism of the emergency response fund is a participatory grantmaking process and works as follows: Applications can be submitted by sex workers in need directly to the fund by telephone, social media, or email in 16 languages. Two volunteers who are sex workers themselves do the first screening, one of them later was formally designated as part-time staff to do this. They work together with a screening board that consists of three sex workers and three consultants (for example social workers from the field), in case of a deadlock situation deference is given to those with lived experience, so the sex workers’ votes count double.  

The application form asks only for the most basic data and can be filled out anonymously. Many applicants do not have bank accounts, so approved funds had to be given to them in cash through volunteers from the helpline network across Germany. The emergency response team was able to organize this process in a way that made sure funds reached people in need within three days. 

Data the team collected showed that approximately 45 percent of people who received funds had no permanent address, and 90 percent did not have health insurance. People applied for money to buy food, clothes and medicine, pay the rent (this became more pressing the longer the lockdowns were in place), for transportation and for keeping up communication with their families and close ones. Grant amounts were between 200 and 1200 Euros, with a slight raise later for debts from unpaid rents. The latest report from the fund team states that 45 percent of people funded said they were trans, inter or non-binary. Overall Dreilinden gave 180.000 € in three installments in 2020 and 2021. 

The emergency response fund team used the approach of an advisory board that consists of people from the field. An advisory board is not the most radical approach in participatory grantmaking because in this case power is shifted to just a slightly bigger group of people. But it allowed the team to get money out the door quickly and still make sure the decisions are made for sex workers by sex workers. This showed us that participatory grantmaking can be done even if time is of the essence. The pandemic provided us with examples of how fast it can move (1). 

What we learned 

A downside to the way our cooperation was set up was the huge workload on the two people coordinating the selection and payment process. It would not have worked without dedicated volunteers at a time when the people giving their time and energy were themselves struggling to maintain their own existence. This created a lot of exhaustion on their part. 

Another issue is the question of how the emergency response fund can become a permanent institution. The fund team together with the union office has worked on fundraising strategies because the need that had become very harsh and visible during pandemic times of course is always there.  

Both these learnings are sustainability issues and made us once again reflect on what our role as funders is. How can we take care of the caregivers we support? How can we change our strategies so we can contribute to building funding mechanisms for the most marginalized that are self-sustaining? We are still looking for the answers, all while the need continues. 

Funding sex worker rights has now become a permanent part of our portfolio as we support the Red Umbrella Fund with multi-year core support. What the pandemic allowed us to see is that a lot more is possible than we thought. In the moment of shared vulnerability, we let our grantmaking decisions be informed by a sense of empathy, and this opened doors to communities we had not been connected to before.  

--Claudia Bollwinkel

  1. A player from the LGBTIQ funding ecosystem that does rapid response grantmaking with a participatory approach is Outright International. The Global Resilience Fund for girls and young feminists was created during the pandemic and represents a more democratic model of philanthropy by its pooled funding mechanism, shared governance and participatory grantmaking. 


Fast or movement led? Both! Participatory Grantmaking can move fast


About the author(s)

Senior Program Advisor