Power and Privilege in Grantmaking

November 22, 2023

The process of grantmaking carries inherent dynamics of power and privilege. Traditionally, funders determined who received funding, whose voice was heard, and what societal issues came to the forefront as a result. These days, things are changing for the better, with fairer practises emerging. 

This article reviews the key factors affecting power and privilege in grantmaking and some steps that funders can take to ensure more equitable practises.

What Determines Power Dynamics in Grant Funding? 

In grant funding, power dynamics often centre around three key elements: processes, funding, and resources. These elements not only shape the functionality of philanthropic institutions but also influence the wider societal impact they can achieve. Let’s take a deeper look into how each of these factors relates to power.


The bureaucratic structures and procedures that dictate how grants are allocated play a pivotal role in shaping power dynamics, and can either streamline or obstruct certain projects and ideas from getting funded. Here are a few points to consider regarding processes:

  • Accessibility: Are processes straightforward, or do they resemble intricate labyrinths that are difficult for newer, smaller organisations to navigate? Complicated application processes can deter potential grantees, and often privileges those with prior experience or more resources to navigate it.
  • Transparency: Transparent processes ensure all applicants understand the criteria for funding and the steps throughout the grant management lifecycle. Conversely, opaque processes can foster a culture where only a few, often privileged entities, can successfully access funds.
  • Timelines: The duration of processes can affect projects, especially time-sensitive ones. Longer processing times can inadvertently give power to well-funded entities that can afford to wait, while disadvantaging grassroots initiatives that may be working on urgent projects addressing immediate needs.
  • Decision-making: Who gets to decide which organisations or projects are funded? Which causes are deemed more pressing or worthy? What processes underpin those decisions? And to what extent are the communities affected involved in the decision making processes throughout the grant’s duration?


Funding itself contributes to power imbalances in the following ways: 

  • Allocation: The decision on which sectors, causes, or communities receive funding often dictates which societal issues are prioritised. This places immense power in the hands of those making allocation decisions and, in the long-term, this can potentially worsen power imbalances in a systemic manner. 
  • Conditionality: Grants with numerous conditions can restrict grantees, limiting their flexibility. Such conditions can also reflect the priorities of the funders more than the communities they aim to serve, perpetuating power imbalances.
  • Magnitude: The amount of funding provided can either empower a project to achieve its full potential or restrict it. Underfunding can lead to compromised implementations, while generous funding can catalyse transformative change.


Beyond monetary funding, other resources – sometimes intangible – are equally important in determining the success of a project. Examples include training, mentorship and capacity building, which empowers grantees with the tools to succeed for the long-term. Denying these opportunities can keep some grantees in a perpetual cycle of dependency.

Privilege in Grantmaking

Privilege is a complex, multifaceted issue in funding, closely relating to power, as addressed above. Below are a few key elements that illustrate how privilege can further marginalise underprivileged groups. 

Access to Information and Resources

Access to information and resources is a key element that gives organisations with prior experience an advantage, and this may also manifest in terms of being more privy to upcoming grants as well as knowing how best to pitch their proposals. Applicants with access to better research facilities, experts, or educational tools may also craft more compelling proposals. 

In addition, those with better technical expertise can have a leg up in executing projects, gathering data, or showcasing impact, making them more attractive to funders.

Fluctuations in access is another important issue. External factors, such as economic downturns or shifts in societal values, can change which groups are deemed more “important” or “relevant” in the grantmaking process.

Networks and Connections

The adage “it’s not what you know, but who you know” rings true when discussing privilege.

Those with inside connections may receive early notifications about grant opportunities or have insights into the preferences of decision-makers. Being part of influential networks can also mean having powerful figures recommend an initiative, giving it more credibility.

Geographic Privilege

Location can play a significant role in privilege, with applicants, grant managers, organisations etc potentially having better access to networking opportunities and resources than those based in remote or rural areas. 

On an international scale, organisations based in the Global North might have more access to large funding bodies, even if they work on issues pertinent to the Global South.

How to Make Grantmaking More Equitable

How Trust Based Philanthropy Redistributes Power

Trust-based philanthropy is often cited as a way to level the playing field in grantmaking. As opposed to a top-down approach, this model seeks to place more agency and decision-making power in the hands of those receiving funds. 

Mutual Respect

Trust-based philanthropy hinges on mutual respect between funders and grantees, where grantees are not just seen as beneficiaries but as equal partners. This fosters a collaborative environment, where both parties value and learn from each other’s expertise, thus breaking the traditional hierarchy and the privilege it often bestows upon funders.

Building Long-Term Relationships

Instead of transactional interactions, trust-based philanthropy emphasises building long-term relationships with grantees. This shift allows for a deeper understanding of the grantees’ evolving needs and challenges, ensuring that support is consistent and adaptive.

More Flexibility

Traditional grantmaking often positions funders as gatekeepers that determine what qualifies as a worthy cause, often dictating terms, requirements, and conditions for grantees. 

Trust-based philanthropy disrupts this dynamic by providing more flexibility about application criteria and reporting requirements. Funders allow grantees to communicate their own requirements, ensuring resources are directed where they’re most needed. 

One of the hallmarks of trust-based philanthropy is the preference for unrestricted or general operating grants. Instead of tying grants to specific projects, funders trust grantees to allocate funds where they see fit. 

Again, this shifts the power back to grantees and acknowledges that they understand their needs and are in the best position to determine where to direct funds.

Below are some more methods that help to make funding more equitable.  


As mentioned, making grant management procedures clear and transparent ensures that every applicant and awardee, regardless of size or experience, understands how to apply, what’s expected, and how decisions are made. 

Streamlined Application and Reporting Processes

Do funders make things overly complicated? There is often a great deal of admin throughout the grant lifecycle. Simplifying application processes and reducing burdensome reporting requirements is another factor in providing transparency. It ensures that smaller or newer organisations that might lack the resources to navigate complex bureaucratic hurdles can still access funds. 

Addressing Implicit Bias

Funders must proactively seek to understand and address implicit bias to ensure that decisions are not swayed by unconscious prejudices. The outcome is mutually beneficial – projects are funded in an equitable manner and funders support projects that contribute to their mission – projects that they may otherwise have missed if implicit bias affected their decision.   

Continuous Learning and Feedback

Grantees should always be able to voice concerns, feedback, or suggestions without fear of reprisal. To take things further, funders should actively seek feedback and making the necessary changes. This approach ensures that grantmaking remains responsive to the needs of the community and helps in dismantling the traditional power dynamics. 

Large Vs. Small Grants 

There is ongoing debate as to which type of funding is more impactful – large grants for the few versus small grants for the many

Both types of grant can assist underprivileged communities in different ways. For example, large grants can allow for capacity-building and other support beyond the grant itself. 

On the other hand, distributing a large number of smaller grants enables broader reach and inclusivity, providing funds to grassroots initiatives that may not have access to larger grants. In addition, it can help organisations with limited resources stay afloat during challenging economic times. 

Reviewing one’s strategy regarding the size of grants may be helpful in the context of power and privilege. 

Power Sharing Practises 

Some funders implement power sharing practises that engage individuals that are closest to the cause. For example, volunteers that live in the community that the grant is provided for may act as ambassadors or intermediaries that are highly involved in any decision making. 

As such, they ensure that funds are used in accordance with the community’s needs, and give community members confidence in the funder’s intentions.  


Historically, grantmaking amplified the voices of a select few, overshadowing grassroots efforts and sidelining marginalised communities. This occurred through issues in grantmaking processes, the use of funds, availability of additional support, and access to information and networks. 

Thankfully, things are changing due to principles from trust-based philanthropy, the emphasis on countering implicit bias, and increasing transparency. In addition, strategies such as power sharing and adapting the size of grants to create greater impact are making a difference. 

Flexigrant simplifies every step of the grant lifecycle. Its clear, intuitive application forms save time, helping funds get to those who need them, fast. To find out more about how it enables the most streamlined, transparent grantmaking, contact us to book a demo. 

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