Plutocratic Philanthropy: Elite Influence in Philanthropic Foundations and Participatory Grantmakers

by Rose Longhurst

Oct 1, 2018

The modern version of the large philanthropic foundation found in the US and the UK emerged in the early 20th Century, but these have increased in size and ambition in recent years. Foundations such as the Gates Foundation offer wealthy elites an opportunity to perpetuate their influence, and thus are accused of enabling plutocratic philanthropy. The growing field of participatory grantmaking aims to address concerns about elite influence in traditional foundations by devolving decisions about philanthropic funding to those affected by the outcome of those decisions. In this research I develop a case study, based on 15 semi-structured interviews with people involved in both traditional foundations and participatory grantmakers, to understand articulations of participatory grantmaking and provide insight into how the approach differs in practice from traditional foundations. I find that inparticipatory grantmaking issues of power are foregrounded, and notions of legitimacy, agenda-setting, and accountability differ. Participatory grantmaking articulates activists as legitimate decision-makers, and unlike traditional foundations, where staff feel primary accountability to an unelected board, participatory grantmaking staff feel accountable to a broader movement. I discuss the broader implications of these findings for participatorygrantmaking as well as the use of participatory approaches in more traditional foundations. 


A two-page summary of the report can be found at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1zpX7Ry7czcbvtcbzZDFcxZng3lzPR76S/view?usp=drive_open

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