What makes a participatory leadership model?

Devolving leadership to partners is an important way to practise a just and equitable approach to grantmaking, but what are the nuts and bolts of such an approach? As part of a short series of articles on the nature and practice of leadership, Eva Rehse of Global Greengrants Fund outlines the organization’s model and identifies a number of key characteristics of participatory leadership.

Global Greengrants Fund was created in 1993 with the explicit purpose of turning philanthropy upside down – turning over the decision-making on grantmaking strategies and on who should receive funding to grassroots activists, to those who were experiencing the problems and knew best how to address them. From the outset, we understood that the value of trust is at the heart of this kind of participatory leadership.

Global Greengrants’ participatory leadership model

We work through advisers, experts both in their fields and the communities and movements we support, who volunteer their knowledge and time to Global Greengrants Fund to set our grantmaking strategies, identify and decide on our grantees and provide accompaniment and mentoring to them. They are also an invaluable part of our monitoring and evaluation.

These 145 advisers are in short the heart of our participatory model – they ensure that our resources go to the most relevant, effective and urgent solutions, and that the wider organization understands the contexts in which we operate. We identify them with the help of our long-standing networks and of existing advisers. In this process, we look for the specific leadership qualities that our advisers need to embody.

Advisers and their leadership qualities

The most important of these qualities is that our advisers have already built a history of trust with the movements they work with, which is the very reason they have emerged as leaders in these movements. In addition to this dedication to the movements they are a part of and which they support through their engagement with Global Greengrants Fund, the main leadership qualities we seek in our advisers are flexibility, responsibility, transparency and a responsiveness that is adaptive, embraces complexity, is open to opportunities, and promotes resilience.

We encourage this leadership first and foremost by shifting power away from the typical grantmaking process – professional programme officers following a strategy approved by headquarters staff – towards these local advisers. Effectively passing on to them the control over resources means encouraging participatory leadership in our network. While our advisers are not employed by us, we appreciate the importance of paying for expertise and labour, and they receive an honorarium. This ensures that we are able to invite a diverse set of people, including young people, Indigenous Peoples and crucially women, who are often not compensated adequately for their contributions to movements. The kind of distributed leadership of under-represented groups we model in our advisory network is also crucial for the movements we support and represents the true diversity of the societies in which we work.

Where leadership lies

For Global Greengrants Fund, leadership lies with the people who are at the heart of our model, rather than comprising a set of attitudes and practices which, when followed, create a leadership mentality. It’s impossible to overemphasise the importance of trust in making this work. Trust goes in many different directions in our model:

  • Our grantee partners trust our advisers, often the only contact they will have with our organization. They trust them to understand their context, take their proposed solutions to environmental injustices seriously, and honestly reflect with them on their strategies. This has enabled us to provide long-term support to movements like the indigenous peoples in Ecuador to successfully protect Yasuní National Park from oil exploration.
  • Our advisers trust each other’s expertise and strategies – every decision is peer-reviewed in our 22 advisory boards, operating at country or sub-regional level, or globally on specific themes, like our Next Generation Climate Advisory Board, which supports youth-led climate movements.
  • Our advisers trust our staff to support them in their work, to be competent, mindful and reliable in securing resources for grassroots movements, and to adhere to our shared organizational values.
  • In return, staff rely on advisers and grantees and their local knowledge to define and address challenges. We believe that our advisers recommend solutions, which are the most relevant and urgent to achieving global environmental justice, rooted in cultural integrity. We trust that our advisers carry out their important roles mindfully, with honesty and a strong focus on the security of our grantee partners, each other and the wider organization.
  • Finally, our donors trust our organization, represented by this entire network, to invest their funding in the most relevant and effective initiatives, mitigate any risks, and be accountable and transparent in reporting back on the use of their support.

Three key ingredients

Trust, of course, needs to be built, and reflecting on how we do so, I see three key ingredients that need to be in place for participatory leadership to work.

Commitment is the first of these. The movements we support often engage in decades-long struggles for justice, like the Bodo community in Nigeria who successfully advocated for a clean-up of oil spills in the Niger Delta. Without committing to be in it for the long run, and through good and bad times, our work would ultimately not be successful.

Trust cannot be faked. Ingredient number two is therefore authenticity. This is both in appreciation of the fact that our advisers have the legitimacy to represent the communities and movements we seek to support, and a commitment to honesty with each other across our network. Sometimes authenticity requires vulnerability – to admit when things did not go to plan and that we do not have all the answers. But always it requires openness – to learning, to changing, and to taking risks. In 2016, the Uru-Murato indigenous peoples in Bolivia lost Lake Poopó, the country’s second largest lake, to climate change despite a decade of action. We will continue to support the communities in their work to build resilience in the face of the climate crisis.

My final ingredient for trust-building is reliability. Our grantees and advisers trust the organization to be efficient in mobilizing and disbursing resources. Global Greengrants Fund has made over 13,000 grants to grassroots environmental initiatives over the last 26 years, with over 1,000 last year; a new record for the organization. This is no small feat for a participatory grantmaking model, in which the process of decentralized decision-making is as much part of the impact we seek as the funded work since, for us, it both recognizes and fosters leadership among those at the centre of the work we support.

Making this many grants in a year can only work when all parts of the network are proficient and clear on their role in the wider system. This is made possible by constant feedback from movements and the leaders who advise our grants, enabling us to maintain a reputation as a trusted and responsible funder. This is particularly important in a world where motives of outsiders are constantly questioned. It also means we must continue to integrate lessons learned, adapt our work accordingly and address our blind spots and biases. One example of this is our work to increase both our funding to women-led environmental initiatives, and women leadership in our advisory network over the last ten years, with the result that now over 60 per cent of our grants go to women-led and women-focused initiatives.

The way forward

Still, we need to walk the talk much better than we have done in the past and, as part of our strategic plan for the period 2018-22, we have committed to increased diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). The process is being led by a group of advisers, coordinators, trustees and staff from across our network. We recognize that, while there is much that unites us, we are different because of our range of identities and experiences. This means among other things that we will intentionally build networks with new communities, from disability rights activists, to LGBTQ+ rights movements, whose members are also affected by environmental change and unequal access to natural resources. The new working group is considering how these and other traditionally excluded people can be included in Global Greengrants Fund’s processes, activities, and decision/policy-making in more equitable ways.

Participatory leadership at all levels

This will involve revisiting our idea of what participatory leadership means for us. While decision-making on our grantmaking is decentralised, how can we ensure that our governance decisions also benefit from the diversity of our network? At the moment, leadership in our grantmaking strategy and decision-making is devolved to advisers, but organizational questions are handled at global governance level. The first step we have taken to address this is to invite more representatives from our advisory network onto our global board of directors.

Another question we are seeking to answer is how to measure trust effectively, and ensure it is a valued indicator of impact. As part of our regular evaluation efforts, we employ participatory action research, including the ‘most significant change’ methodology. Across geographies and contexts, increased trust within communities is one of the most consistent impact indicators we hear about; yet our donors rarely ask us to monitor it (and the same is true for dignity or confidence). Given the key role trust plays in our model and for our work, we are discussing ways in which we can become better at measuring it, liaising with our donors about asking the right questions, and communicating our impact more effectively.

The opportunity to engage with the Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace ‘Defining Key Concepts’ series has been invaluable for us on this journey. It has helped us attach deeper meaning to the concept of leadership, strengthen our understanding of power within our model, and re-appreciate the importance of trust for our organization. We look forward to continued engagement with this process in future.


Eva Rehse is the Executive Director of Global Greengrants Fund UK. She is a member of the European Steering Group of the EDGE Funders Alliance, the Alliance Magazine editorial advisory board, and co-convenor of the international funders network of the Association of Charitable Foundations.