How the Brooklyn Community Foundation Brings Grantmaking to the People

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Selma Jackson, 77, lives in supportive housing in Brooklyn and has been a resident of the borough much of her life. “I know what some of the restrictions are and the challenges of people in the community. I know what the experience is,” Jackson said. “From my perspective, it’s important to have people who have awareness of the needs in the community.” 

Jackson brings her lived experience to the Brooklyn Community Foundation’s Brooklyn Elders Fund Advisory Council, a participatory initiative designed to harness community knowledge in grantmaking decisions and share power with the people touched by the foundation’s work. 

Founded in 2009, the Brooklyn Community Foundation is perhaps best known for its commitment to racial justice and for applying that lens to all its work. But it’s also using the nimbleness that can come with being a relatively new community foundation to pioneer a high-touch form of community-led giving. Its participatory approach empowers residents like Jackson, who, in her role, helps steer the Brooklyn Elders Fund’s $600,000 in annual giving.

Out of the $13 million BCF channeled to charitable organizations in 2021, nearly $5 million went to strategic, discretionary funding for nonprofits addressing BCF’s five core concerns: elders, youth, immigrants’ rights, wellness and recovery, and the racial-justice-focused Spark Prize. 

After encountering success with the elder community council, the foundation has created similar community-led advisory councils across all five of its core funding areas — a bold move to shift grantmaking power to community decision-makers.

Aging funding, guided by older people

BCF kicked off its effort to center community engagement across its work with a set of conversations called “insights meetings.” These focus-group-like get-togethers were designed to let people across the borough share their ideas and concerns. In 2019, the newly formed Brooklyn Elders Fund held 15 of these insights meetings in seven languages at senior centers throughout Brooklyn, with between five and 25 people in each. It also solicited additional input from homebound seniors.

These conversations directly shaped the giving of the Brooklyn Elders Fund, leading it to focus on its three current priorities: aging in place, promoting elders’ rights, and improving access to government benefits and entitlements. The Brooklyn Elders Fund currently funds 13 Brooklyn-based nonprofits that address these issues, giving each one general operating support grants of $45,000 per year over three years. 

To some, this may sound like a lot of time and money spent to decide what to fund. It is a lot, admitted Jocelynne Rainey, who came on board as president and CEO of BCF in 2021, after much of this work had already begun. But Rainey said it’s worth it. She believes philanthropy as a whole should “double down” on its commitment to participatory grantmaking. “It allows us to learn what that population really needs. They make the decisions because they can say, ‘This is programming that works and that we need.’ You learn details and get intelligence from people who live in those communities and know about their population. It’s things you don’t necessarily think about — not the ‘needs’ of people that we read about, but the real needs,” she said.

Another major outcome of the Brooklyn Elders Fund’s insights meetings? Lowering the age of elder giving from 65 to 50, a change that community members pushed for. As research on the social determinants of health has shown, adverse life experiences can accelerate the physical and cognitive decline associated with aging. Factors like living in poverty, experiencing chronic stress, being undocumented, lacking access to regular checkups and medical specialists, incarceration and a poor diet take a real toll. “They compound on someone’s body, and so we lowered the age in response to those conversations,” said Sabrina Hargrave, BCF’s director of programs. “We redefined older adults at 50-plus, which aligns with AARP’s number.”

From talking to leading

The success of the insights meetings contributed to the development of the advisory councils like the one on which Selma Jackson sits. “We evolved from the insights meetings to not only listening to communities but also putting community members into positions of decision-making,” said Liane Stegmaier, BCF’s vice president of communications and strategy. “We are really committed to learning as a foundation and always trying to refine our approach to participatory grantmaking. It’s a distinction in what we do, so getting it right is really important to us.”

BCF recruits some applicants for community advisory positions during insights conversations. Others come in through the foundation’s network of nonprofit partners, via suggestions by elected officials, and via recommendations from other foundations. Jackson, now retired, has professional and volunteer background in community grantmaking, but most community advisors don’t. Rather, they have experience with the myriad issues that grantees’ and potential grantees’ mostly BIPOC clients face. 

After selecting advisors, BCF offers education and training in grantmaking and in how BCF operationalizes its racial justice goals, as well as guidance about the power advisors wield through grantmaking. Advisors are paid about $20 an hour for this training and for their time reviewing grant proposals, joining staff on site visits, and participating in debriefing sessions. 

So how much do community advisors actually shape BCF’s activities? “Oh man. So much,” Hargrave said. “They are members of the community, largely born and raised here, living here for decades. They make the conversation so much deeper.” Hargrave pointed to Project Guardianship, a nonprofit that helps older people without family or financial resources get court-appointed guardians to help them stay in their homes and avoid financial exploitation and other forms of elder abuse. Some advisors on the council have experienced that type of situation themselves, and bring personal knowledge. 

Others, like Jackson, saw firsthand the impact of the digital divide on Black and brown communities during COVID. “You couldn’t make an appointment to get a vaccine if you didn’t have internet or equipment to go online,” Jackson said. “I’ve lived in communities where there is limited access or a lot of services weren’t available. We were pushing for not only the equipment but also the skill-building. Those are some of the conversations we had about whether to fund a program.” 

Community advisors also serve as a check on nonprofits that might misrepresent their activities in their quest for funding, because the advisors have been there and can speak to how these organizations operate on the ground. “They are quick to point out when an organization seems not that deeply embedded or isn’t really as active as it says it is, Hargrave said. “There are people who we didn’t move on because there were advisors who thought they weren’t doing the work they purported to do.” 

“They feel like a giver”

Community-led, participatory philanthropy is of particular importance in communities of color because power generally lies elsewhere, Rainey said. Dispensing philanthropic funding to organizations in a systematic way is not a role that low-income BIPOC individuals frequently get to take on. Deciding which groups to support within one’s own community, and how, empowers residents to have control over what happens around them. 

Rainey sees inviting people to participate in grantmaking as a way to democratize philanthropy and expand the pool of people who can join. “I believe philanthropy is something everyone can do, regardless of their socioeconomic status, through activities like the advisory council,” she said. “What I’ve learned from people impacted by it has been so inspiring. The advisors own it and feel connected to it and are really proud of it. They feel like they’re giving back and doing it in the right way. The feeling of being able to support work you care about and people you care about is a feeling everyone should have. They feel like a giver. I see that when they speak about the work.”

Jackson agreed. “To me, it’s a blessing to be in that role,” she said. “You are able to be in the room making decisions about how community organizations are funded and make change by having recommended this group.” 

Rainey said BCF has received a lot of inquiries about its model, but she still doesn’t see other foundations making a similar across-the-board commitment to participatory grantmaking. She thinks they should, and ensure that they allocate enough resources for success. That might mean hiring more staff, as BCF did, designing the right technology and systems, paying consultants, making connections, doing insights-like meetings or all of the above.

“It’s good work, but it’s real work,” Rainey said. “In order to do it right, you need to invest in having the infrastructure to do it in the most meaningful way. You can’t just one day wake up and say, ‘We’re going to do participatory grantmaking.’ You have to figure out how to cast the widest net and how to make sure that you’re able to attract the best advisors, making sure you have everything in place so you can do it with the most integrity.”