Grassroots Foray into Participatory Grant Making

What would it look like to empower summer youth program leaders to build their own training and participatory grant making process? Let’s dive in!

This Spring I worked with the Lewiston Campaign for Grade-Level Reading as they brought together a coalition of summer youth programs to take on the “summer slide” of literacy loss for 3rd and 4th graders throughout our community. Practitioners worked together to design a training program that would provide staff with skills building in three critical areas that they had chosen as important for their success: Literacy Learning Skills, Restorative Justice, and Experiential Learning. Prior to the trainings, program staff had identified these as key areas for growth:

  • Many of the programs had a literacy component that they had created themselves without the opportunity to think about specific practices that increase literacy and counteract the summer slide
  • All of the programs wrestled with how to support behavioral shifts for students without resorting to kicking them out of the program or ineffectively punishing them
  • Staff were eager to get the kids out of the classroom this summer and learn how to use hands-on experiences not only for fun, but to achieve their learning objectives


The Literacy Campaign wanted to move beyond simply learning about these skills to actually putting them into action. Collaboration has been a core goal of the campaign; seeking to strengthen the working relationships across programs in Lewiston. So, in addition to the skills trainings, they engaged me to design a series of incubator sessions to help participants design collaborations where they would take skills they learned in the trainings and apply them to literacy trainings in their summer programs.

The participants would then gather at the end of the training to revise each other’s proposals and vote on which proposal would receive $4100 to implement this summer.

I was excited to take on this project because I loved the idea of putting agency in the hands of program staff to design and then fund interventions that they felt would enrich students. So often program staff have the least say in grant funding and how it is to be used – this felt like we were getting the opportunity to flip the script.

Participatory Grant making

Over the course of the last 3 months we had a great time wrestling with the ins and outs of participatory grant design and funding. Here were some of our major take-aways:

  • In our first session, we learned that participants needed a lot more time to talk with each other about their goals and outcomes before diving into how to implement their ideas
  • Relationship building in the sessions facilitated easier communication and collaboration over the course of the training
  • The time investment it takes to do a participatory process can be prohibitive to some programs that are strapped for staff time – while we tried to find ways to be as inclusive as possible, this remained a problem we had not completely figured out how to solve
  • The invitation to create collaborations for money also allowed participants to realize opportunities for collaboration that did not need funding and to follow-up with each other outside of the training series
  • New allies like the Restorative Justice Institute were brought into our community through the training
  • In the voting process we had to learn to be comfortable with differences of opinion on how to create both an equitable and an inclusive process – at first it felt really uncomfortable for some participants to wrestle with these tensions, but over the course of a session we leaned into trusting each other and being willing to find compromise
  • The proposal that did no receive funding will continue to seek alternate sources of funding, and the winner – an experiential literacy learning program – will provide 8 weeks of enriching engagement for over 100 youth in two summer programs
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