Community Members Are Leading This Participatory Grantmaking Project – Here’s How It Works

Wednesday December 8, 2021

This piece was originally published on Future of Good, written by Neha Chollangi. 

The WES Mariam Assefa Fund is partnering with Future of Good on a series of digital stories to highlight its first-ever participatory grantmaking project in Peel region, Ontario facilitated by the Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement.

Back in 1970 when Najma Iqbal immigrated to Canada, challenges for newcomers were vastly different from what they are today. She laughs recalling her experience during those days, when ESL programs weren’t the norm and she was the only person of colour in her school.

At the same time, Iqbal notes that a number of settlement issues have stayed constant throughout the years. Finding a job, housing issues, and getting international credentials validated are just some of the things she says many newcomers still struggle with today.

Iqbal now lives in the Peel Region of Ontario, in Brampton, where she retired last year from working as a community labour market manager for the City of Toronto. As a recent retiree with free time on her hands, Iqbal came across a new grantmaking project seeking immigrant and refugee community members from the Peel Region to voice needs and sit at the decision-making table.

Equipped with her lived experience and passion to strengthen the immigrant community, Iqbal applied to be part of the new grantmaking project. 

“I’m a Muslim woman of colour and I’ve been here a long time, so I’ve seen the evolution of the immigrant community in the GTA [Greater Toronto Area],” says Iqbal. “I’ve also seen the evolution of service access and the lack of it, and how still there’s so many issues and needs that continue to be prevalent for the newcomer community today.”

It makes perfect sense to involve community members in a conversation about their own needs.

Yet, in many traditional grantmaking models, funding decisions are made by foundations based on internal research and consultations with their existing networks. The problem with this approach is that it leaves out the lived experience of people who know firsthand about their problems.

The WES Mariam Assefa Fund is seeking to challenge this traditional practice with a trust-based model called participatory grantmaking, which centres the voices directly impacted by a particular grant or program. 

For their new participatory grantmaking pilot project, the Fund has partnered with the Tamarack Institute to support the economic mobility of the immigrant and refugee population in the Peel Region — where half the population is made up of immigrants.


Let’s say a foundation has a new focus on helping incarcerated people in Ontario. Traditionally, the foundation would post an open call where organizations can submit their own proposals and projects.

If the foundation used a participatory grantmaking model instead, it would reach out to groups of people who were incarcerated in Ontario and let them decide how this fund should be used as well as who should get the grants.

Simply put, participatory grantmaking means shifting the decision-making power from the foundation to the community itself which is impacted by these decisions.

“The traditional model of philanthropy is not necessarily built on trust. It has some kind of colonial perspective that actually funders know better than communities.”
Marina Nuri, associate director, WES Mariam Assefa Fund

Participatory grantmaking, on the other hand, Nuri says, involves a spectrum of participation. In WES’ pilot project, newcomers are involved in the problem definition phase (or strategy development phase) as well as the ongoing and final decision-making process.


When WES initiated this pilot project, it first sought out an organization which could reach out to a community and facilitate discussions about their needs. While in some participatory grantmaking projects, the foundation staff would do this facilitation themselves, Nuri says they wanted to hire a third party for two reasons: This was a brand-new type of project and WES didn’t have experience in this kind of facilitation; neither did WES, as the funder, want to “impose” on community members. Through this process, they identified the Tamarack Institute as a partner who could facilitate the project.

The only criteria WES as the funder determined in this project was the broad focus of immigrant and refugee communities (WES’ overall focus), as well as the pre-approved amount in the fund. “The rest is in their hands,” says Nuri, referring to the community members.

One of Tamarack’s primary priorities for Tamarack was to select a community for this pilot project. They had an open call for nominations and chose a community based on its population makeup and current needs; it also assessed if community members were willing to participate in the project.

Tamarack selected the Peel Region in Ontario through The Peel Newcomer Strategy Group’s (PNSG) nomination of the community. Peel has a massive immigrant and refugee population which was estimated at 51.5 percent according to the 2016 census. The region also welcomed 26,000 immigrants in 2021. 

“We applied to have Peel as the host community because we saw a lot of great opportunities for our population,” says Jessica Kwik, director at PNSG, who mentioned how the region is the only immigrant-majority community in the Greater Toronto Area.

Kwik says her community needs help with refugee settlement and underemployment and unemployment of newcomers, especially through the COVID-19 pandemic. Anyone from the Peel community can apply to be part of the people’s panel—which will consist of 12 people. Tamarack is seeking a balance of six individuals and six representatives from newcomer-serving organizations.

“I think that by bringing a diversity of people from the community with different backgrounds, ages, gender, ethnicity and cultural background, work experiences, and most importantly lived experiences, we will get a much better sense of what should be done,” says Myriam Bérubé, a consulting director at Tamarack. “The problems that we’re trying to solve are very complex, and lots of people are already working on them. If there was one clear solution or proven path, we would already be there.”

Those selected will need to have attended four virtual sessions (two hours each) in November and December where they will discuss which issues need to be addressed and plan out the application process. In spring 2022, they’ll attend two grantmaking sessions to choose which organizations should get the grants. For their time, members of the people’s panel will be paid above Peel’s living wage ($19.80 per hour).

“I’m really interested in seeing what’s possible in terms of bringing that greater level of engagement with different levels of stakeholders that really make up the settlement process and think about how that connects some of the broader issues of employment or building economies that don’t present as many barriers,” says Kwik.


At the moment, the project is in the phase of building a committee made up of 12 community representatives (called the people’s panel, which will work to discuss the various issues in the Peel Region related to immigrants and refugees. Through Tamarack’s facilitation, the people’s panel will identify a focus area and launch the application process next year.

As a learning centre, Tamarack will also be documenting this process and identify lessons learned. Nuri explains that this will help WES with streamlining participatory grantmaking projects in the future as well as sharing their learnings with other organizations who want to try it out as well.

Building trust within a community can take a lot of time. Nuri explains that trust-based approaches can, of course, be used even in traditional philanthropy with how a funder builds relationships with grantees. Sometimes funders may collaborate with community members and get their input on issues, but funders still make the final decision on where the funding goes at the end of the day. In participatory grantmaking, however, funders trust that the community knows best about its own needs—and allocates money accordingly.

As a relatively new funder, the WES Mariam Assefa Fund is still carving out its own approaches to philanthropy, according to Nuri. This project is a way for the Fund to dive into an inherently trust-based funding method while supporting immigrant and refugee communities—its core mission. 

“I don’t think our mission is really to transform philanthropy,” says Nuri. Our mission is to help immigrants and refugees. But I think immigrants and refugees would really benefit if other funders start funding in the same way.”

View original article on Future of Good.

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