Grantmaking by public vote

Grantmakers have been experimenting with handing their decision making over to the general public for a number of years now. Those who have trialled it have found that democratic grantmaking has pros and cons.

  • What does the public voting model of grantmaking look like?
  • The models are as varied as the organisations that have tried it, but these are some of the ones we've seen:
  • A grantmaker called for public nominations via Facebook and then invited the public to vote for up to 20 of thousands of eligible groups.
  • A grantmaker accepted 1000 ideas each month and allowed people to vote for up to ten a day.
  • A grantmaker put a shortlist of 100 reviewed projects before a panel, which choose 20 projects to receive a grant of $10,000 each. The public, voting online, then chose four of the 20 to receive an additional $25,000 each.
  • A grantmaker asked applicants to make a public pitch to conference delegates (in person or via video), who then decided on the winner by electronic vote.
  • A grantmaker screened shortlisted ideas on regional television news programs and then invited the public to vote via phone or SMS, or online.
  • Businesses gave customers tokens to place in one of a number of community groups' jars. Whichever group had the most tokens at the end of the week or month won the grant.
  • In some models, a total funding pool is made available - say, $300,000 - and grantseekers can apply for up to $10,000 per project. Funds are allocated to the project with the highest number of votes, and then the second highest, and so on until the overall allocation is exhausted.

Why do it?

  • It might help the public to feel more connected with the grantmaker and the recipients, and to believe that they have the power to make a difference in their communities.
  • It can help to raise public awareness of the issues, programs and projects for which grantmakers offer funds.
  • It promotes "citizen-centred" approaches as important processes that can complement existing community problem solving and civic engagement programs.

The pros

  • The simple act of motivating people to come up with and pitch ideas seems to be productive. One grantmaker found that while only 20% of projects received funding, the vast majority of applicants - 80% - were still "highly engaged and moving forward" two years down the track.
  • It can ensure you are supporting causes your stakeholders care about.
  • It generates publicity for all of the community groups involved (the winners and those who miss out).
  • The public might surprise you - as it has done others - by supporting causes you expect to be unpopular.

The cons

  • At least one grantmaker found that people did not like the public voting process. People felt that it could be biased - for example, towards projects in large cities where there were more people available to vote. Some felt that it resulted in a popularity contest rather than a competition based on merit.
  • It can be perceived as lazy grantmaking.
  • It risks excluding unpopular causes.

The challenges

  • You need to ensure that all of the people who are eligible to vote understand the program and the processes involved.
  • It's not enough to have only your grantmaking staff involved. If you have policy and media relations staff, for example, they need to be involved too.
  • If you are running the program in a very public way - on television, for instance - you need to agree on values and objectives with your media partner in the planning stages. Their ideas might be very different from yours.


  • Be clear about who your audience is and educate them about your program. Provide examples of the sorts of projects that would qualify.
  • Set an overall pool of funds and maximum grant amounts to establish clear expectations.
  • Ensure that all staff are aware of the process, and its benefits.
  • Think about whether you need to achieve an equitable spread of grants (by geographical region, group size, type of group, type of project, etc) and think about how you will do so.
  • Decide on your process. For example, will you shortlist the applicants (based on merit and other priorities) and then put forward a only the shortlisted applicants for the vote, or will you allocate funds based on the total number of votes each applicant receives?
  • Consider providing training and support to ensure a level playing field in the presentation of proposals.
  • Think about how you will process applications. Can you move your processing system off-site if you are conducting the process at a conference, for example?
  • Make your event fun and lively, not dull and worthy. Providing entertainment helps.

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