Power of Participatory Grantmaking: A Conversation with Food & Farm Communications Fund

peterson@growyourgiving.orgIndividual & Family Giving

Esperanza Pallana, Executive Director of the Food and Farm Communications Fund, recently joined Gwen Wurst, a Senior Philanthropic Advisor at Greater Horizons for an insightful conversation on the power of participatory grantmaking and how the Fund is transforming our food systems. Relying on a donor-advised fund for administrative structure and support, the Food and Farm Communications Fund is able to focus on their mission and their grantmaking initiatives.

If you are interested in learning more about grantmaking strategies or the flexibility a donor-advised fund provides, we welcome you to get in touch with our philanthropic advisors.

About the Food and Farm Communications Fund
The Food & Farm Communications Fund (FFCF) is a participatory grantmaking fund that meets a critical need in the field of food system transformation: funding communications strategy and capacity. Its mission is to provide communications funding and resources for grassroots organizations and networks working to uplift frontline narratives, build power, and embolden transformative food and farm systems change. Since 2012, FFCF has responded to the urgent need for communications support among movement organizations working for food and agricultural systems change. FFCF has invested millions in frontline food and farm organizations for communications initiatives and capacity-building to advance racial equity, justice, resilience, and transformational change.

Gwen Wurst:
For the last 10 years, the Food and Farm Communications Fund has invested more than $4 million in frontline food and farm organizations by funding communications strategy and capacity. Could we start off by telling us a little bit about what the Food and Farm Communications Fund is?

Esperanza Pallana:
Absolutely. We are a national movement-led participatory grantmaking fund. Our mission is to provide communications funding and resources for grassroots organizations and networks, working to uplift frontline narratives, build power, and embolden transformative food and farm systems change. And we are celebrating our 10th year this year. So it’s very exciting. We’re able to really demonstrate the direction of our work and what our commitment has been for the last decade.

Gwen Wurst:
So you started that explanation and your mission with the term “participatory.”

Esperanza Pallana:

Gwen Wurst:
Can we start there and tell me a little bit about what that looks like?

Esperanza Pallana:
Yeah, absolutely. I would say it’s what started as a donor-advised fund and really a funder-driven initiative. And evolved into a deeper ecology of relationships and accountability. I think that the funder leaders who really brought this collaborative to its initial inception understood that it takes all of us at the table to really make the kind of change that we are supporting and really driving towards.

Gwen Wurst:
Wow. So quite a shift. You said also that the fund is a movement-led grantmaker. And you mentioned again, building community power. So can you say more about that and what that means beyond the participatory nature of it?

Esperanza Pallana:
Yes, yes. So basically we were started in 2012. But in 2019 we really created a power-sharing structure, and we did that by bringing a community of grantee partners, movement leaders, communication strategists and funders into a co-governance model. So we took what was initially a steering committee that was guiding the activity, working with myself, the executive director, to implement our strategic direction, and we created co-governance. So we have a steering committee that collaboratively makes decisions about strategic direction, core values, our growth, and then we have a grants advisory that really guides us on our grants process programs and funding determinations. And our grants advisory is comprised of the movement leaders, labor organizers, and communication strategists. It actually does not include funders. Though it has been an evolution, as I was saying before. We have been evolving and I think each year we’re learning. And so we’re implementing modifications and really trying to hone in on the strongest structure for us to make truly community-centered decisions around our funding and how we grow to support this movement.

Gwen Wurst:
You’ve mentioned that you’ve tweaked it over time and you continue to change. What are the things that have happened since 2019?

Esperanza Pallana:
I think that’s a great question, Gwen. I think being able to go step by step. I’m a big believer in showing the sausage making.

Gwen Wurst:
I don’t want you to have to show too much.

Esperanza Pallana:
No, no, I think it’s actually really, really important. One, because of the nature of who we are around power sharing, around engaging directly within community and really being part of the movement, being an actor in the movement. There are some key things, I would say values, that we want to lift up for ourselves. And that’s accountability, transparency and accountability. And the reason for that is because at the end of the day, we are one organization working across a collective that is actually driving toward true transformational systemic change. And the only way to do that is to do it together. And the only way to get it to happen together is to be really upfront around the steps necessary to make that a reality. And so there is no magical outcome. There is no, “Oh, it was so well thought out and so well planned that it unfolded beautifully.” That just doesn’t exist.

And when we buy into that mythology, we’re doing a disservice to the true action and operationalizing it takes for this. So I’m totally here for sharing our story. I would say, as I mentioned, I think I find it compelling to understand the nature of who we are because we’re working in a complex administrative structure that’s not uncommon in philanthropy. We were founded as a donor-advised fund. We were led by funder collaborators and an administrator. Our structure as a donor-advised fund and our partners have enabled a high degree of adaptability. And so I really want to recognize that our funder partners and our administrator have been truly partnered and active in that process, but it has been iterative.

So for instance, I mentioned initially we were funder led. And really we’ve been very consistent in certain aspects of our funding around reclaiming democracy, re-indigenizing our food system. That’s always been core to who we are, as is cultural organizing and farmer engagement. We really do always speak to that. The decisions were being determined by funders and the outreach. And that’s a really important aspect of that. The outreach with the grants opportunity was restricted to the networks of just those funders. And that is clearly evident when you look at our full portfolio, from where we started to where we are now. So I think over, I’d say, three to four years of that, the partners really saw that we needed to broaden our network and bring in a different perspective.

And so that started hiring our first staff, and that started an evaluation to identify where are those opportunities. That began a journey of creating our grant advisory committee. And that started as strictly advisory and recommendation to the funders. Whereas in 2019, we actually authorized the grant advisory committee to make the determinations. So they no longer provide just strict recommendations, they actually make the determinations around the funding. Now, every year we ask ourselves, what’s working? How can we make this better? And we’re really looking for their input on our strategic growth and our grantmaking. So we’ve brought them onto the steering committee. That means the steering committee is now, again, a mix of labor organizers, movement leaders, community strategists, and the funders. I love that because that’s bridging that relationship between funders and folks on the ground doing the work. We need that crosstalk. We need that collaborative conversation happening to understand, one, what is our place within philanthropy? How are we actors within this movement? How can we best serve the communities that we are working with? So that’s great. And then the grants advisory committee I mentioned before now is only comprised of our community leaders and they can make those determinations. So it is really, truly participatory. Even as executive director, I can have a view into the window, but the determinations are with our grants advisory committee. So that is a great process that we’re holding to. But I would say that’s been some of the journey around that.

Gwen Wurst:
When you mentioned that the steering committee came to the decision they needed to reach out to those grantee partners, and those activists and movement leaders that you were working with, I suspect that’s part of how your grantee partnerships changed, that they started bringing other opportunities to you or alerted the fund of other opportunities. Could you share a little bit about how you build relationships with the grantee partners?

Esperanza Pallana:
Yes. We have placed a priority on hiring staff from within communities. And so our staff have been practitioners, have been on the ground, are from within communities most impacted by systemic inequities and have expertise in community economic development, philanthropy, policy. And so folks are bringing a lot to the table. And they also bring with them these trusted relationships in their networks. So I think bringing that and being able to work directly with our grant advisory members really broadens the reach of our fund. So our grants advisory committee is actually is comprised of our grantee partners. These are folks who have gone through our processes and really understand what we’re trying to do.

I think that’s valuable because it means they can provide feedback on how it is to work with us as a funder, and help us strengthen our own capacity. And I think that we have been very open and adaptive to feedback and are willing to hear about our weaknesses. How can we do better? That has been invaluable. So incorporating that feedback, really trying to be true to creating process. I think that our director of programs and movement support Shavaun Evans has been really instrumental in creating a platform for our grants advisory committee. Shavaun has a lot of skills in cooperatives and collective processes and is bringing that to the table. So again, looking to the staff that you have and the talent there that can facilitate this kind of process is important.

Another way that we continue to build relationships with some of our grantee partners is that movement support is actually embedded in our capacity building. So while we provide grantmaking for capacity building and always have done that, we also provide technical assistance services through a third party. So we have ongoing partnerships with Social Movement Technologies and Repower. And through that, we’re able to invite grantee partners that need one-on-one coaching to immersive trainings through our partners on digital strategy for campaigns. We’re able to strengthen networking communications alongside  funding for infrastructure.

Gwen Wurst:
Would you share a few examples of your grantee partners and their work and how the fund is supporting them specifically?

Esperanza Pallana:
Yeah, I love this question, but it’s always difficult because there are 105 grantee partners and then 161 projects that we funded in our full 10-year portfolio. So even though we’ve been limited by the capital that we have at the table, we’ve still really maximized what we can do with that. So that’s exciting. And I’ve had the joy of really digging into our portfolio to take a look and see what is our history and what we’ve been doing. So I’m very excited to share this. First of all, the kind of communication strategy support that we provide is really narrative shift, capacity building and movement support, and transforming food media. Those are kind of the big funding priorities that we’ve had from the beginning and will continue to carry forward. Now, within that, we support what I refer to as the collective vision.

The collective vision of our grantees. The vision or the future of our food system rests in the hands of these grantee partners and the folks on the ground doing the work. So we are very sensitive to the change, the systemic change that is needed. And so the grantee vision that we are supporting and caring forward really is around one, re-indigenizing food and agricultural systems. And when I say re-indigenize, I’m referring to natural systems for food and farm, sustainable regenerative systems and communities that are healthy and thriving, and accessing healthy food, where food is not a commodity. It’s not being weaponized for profit and control. It is feeding and nourishing our communities. Looking at portfolio, 98% of our projects fall within that theme. So we have been very consistent.

One very exciting example that I can share is the indigenous Farm hub in Sandoval County in New Mexico. It’s a program of an organization called One Generation. And the Hub offers community-supported agriculture subscriptions that engage indigenous communities to create a network of farmers and families that are vitalizing the local and sustainable food system. I think that’s amazing. They’re building this network within the community for access to nourishing food, land reclamation,–and this is very important–reconnecting the bond between language and culture to indigenous practices of agriculture. So we specifically supported a project with them that focuses on indigenous food sovereignty and food access across six New Mexico Pueblos and three Navajo Nation chapters.

Another important aspect of our work is knowing that change takes people. No one organization, no one person, can make this happen. So reclaiming democracy is a really big focus of ours. And about 88% of our projects have really landed within that. And by reclaiming democracy, I mean building political relationships, strengthening civic engagement, mobilizing for policy advocacy, organizing for community-controlled economies, and for dignified labor and fair wages, as well as providing movement capacity building. So that’s all within reclaiming democracy.

I also want to lift up the work of HEAL. That’s Health Environment Agriculture Labor Food Alliance, the HEAL of Food Alliance. So they work to build collective power to create food and farm systems that are healthy for our families; accessible and affordable for all communities; and fair to the hardworking people who grow, distribute, and prepare and serve our food while protecting the air, water and land we all depend on. So their work in general, I think, is very necessary. And also they are playing a critical role in uplifting stories and leadership through their school of political leadership.

So they have a six-month-long political leadership program that supports teams of talented, passionate food and farm justice leaders who are advocating for policies and solutions to create inclusive and democratic food and farm systems so that it’s accountable to all communities. We’ve been an ongoing funding partner with the HEAL Food Alliance. But like I said, 88% of our projects fall within reclaiming democracy. So this is something very core to our work. We definitely support community economic development and have been supporting community-led processes where the community identifies and then initiates their own solutions to economic, social, and environmental issues within food and agriculture. So we believe in supporting community-controlled economies. People need to come before profit. That is the only way for us to address the kind of climate crises that we are seeing. We need to prioritize our environment and people within it and the laborers who are providing our food and implementing farming practices.

So while we do have a long, rich history of it, one of the projects that I can speak to more recently is actually one of our grantee partners, Communities in Partnership. They’re in Durham, North Carolina. So they have a really great array of projects for food justice. One of them is the community food cooperative that’s providing over 950 families, about $500 per year of essential food items. Their partnerships with farmers really support the local Black and Brown farmers within their regional food system because that’s another part of necessary economic development and support that’s needed.

The Old Eastern market is a cooperative that’s also selling produce and protein boxes. They have a really interesting structure in how they do that, and I would encourage anyone to learn more about them. They are also supporting Black-owned farms with their purchases. And then they have a Thriving Communities Fund that’s a mutual aid network for local food-based small businesses where they provide micro-grants to ensure that they’re able to continue serving their local community. So that’s communities and partnership and some of the food justice work that they’re doing that we’ve supported.

Another important aspect of our work from the get-go has been farmer engagement. This has been a long-time communication strategy that we prioritize. And this has been all the way from outreach to farmers, one-on-one training, organizing education efforts to build coalitions and strengthen capacity for natural systems farming to reclaim land and foster economic resilience for farmers. And this has been across the nation. In fact, within our first year in 2012, we supported immersive trainings for journalists to increase the efficacy and proficiency of journalists to be able to report on food and agricultural stories, with an emphasis on sustainable farming while also supporting farmers. We supported the Practical Farmers of Iowa to provide training, staff assistance and outreach to regional farmers to support them with getting media coverage on sustainable farming practices so that they could be advocating. So this was a really important strategy. We understood the many layers. I would say also when farmers are implementing sustainable farming practices, re-indigenizing regenerative agricultural practices, it can be really isolating.

They are often in areas where conventional farming is the status quo, and also it can be hostile. So it’s really important that folks are networked and their efforts are strengthened. So I think for me, it says a lot about who we are as a fund, that we’ve understood that and made sure that there’s always been support for networking, communications, training, and just support for the farmers who are doing this. Farming itself is incredibly hard work. So farming against that status quo and forging this pathway forward is hard work. So we are here for it. And I think that’s also why it’s important that we have implemented farmer engagement in our work.

So in 2022, we proudly supported our grantee partner, Black Farmer Fund, and their mission is to nurture Black community wealth and health by investing in Black agricultural systems in the Northeast. So they are doing some really inspiring work. They’re providing opportunities for Black food entrepreneurs to access integrated capital that’s responsive to their needs. That capital is to facilitate the acquisition of land, infrastructure development, equipment purchase, and other operational needs, which can be really challenging to access capital for. So it’s deeply needed. They have a multi-pronged approach to their work. And again, I encourage folks to learn more and support them in their work because they’re amazing.

And then one more thing I’ll lift up around our work. Central to our work is cultural organizing, where preserving and expressing our culture is an active resistance to the constant pressure of erasure. We have supported and really centered cultural organizing across all of the different strategies. And so this is really around lifting up a counter-narrative rooted in community cultural wealth and capacity. We seek out grantee partners that are approaching their communications work with a strategic generative and power-building lens through our ritual story celebration. And that is just critical to engage folks in. So we’ve done this through ongoing grants, again, from the beginning in 2012, to, even now, having our Impact Media Award that highlights media makers transforming the food media landscape with strategic cultural narratives. And there’s so many projects. Really beautiful work that’s happening.

One I’ll mention is La Semilla Food Center, based within New Mexico, recently completed a Farm Bill zine. So this is using the graphic novel approach that’s really popular in Latinx culture to convey the story, the history behind, and the need for the Farm Bill and how it’s impacted our community specifically. So they created this zine. It has been really well received, very successful. And because of the kinds of opportunities that have come out of the successes and demand for the zine, they’ve actually created a whole storytelling program now for their organization where they’re utilizing cultural organizing strategies. So that’s, I think, a real success story for us and that we were able to provide support for their project that turned out to be catalytic to their steps forward.

Another would be Crow Voices, an indigenous community radio station based out of Gary Owen, Montana. The radio station includes Crow traditional culture, food systems, natural farming, sustainability, sovereignty, and ecological stewardship. Crow Voices is part of a 23-year-old organization called Center Poll. And their mission is to build knowledge, justice, opportunity and prosperity in indigenous communities with a focus on food sovereignty and decolonization education. So their vision is to transform the reservation food system into one rooted in equity, justice and resilience, building power for people individually and collectively. So we have supported the implementation of the radio station, Crow Voices.

Gwen Wurst:
Wow. You can hear the passion in your voice and it’s so exciting. I am absolutely blown away. I’ve known about the Food and Farm Communications Fund for a long time, but I’ve never known it in the detail that you’ve provided. So thank you so much. What else would you like to share with us? Anything more you want to add?

Esperanza Pallana:
I appreciate the opportunity to share our story. This is a common situation where we support communication strategies, but we really haven’t been as loud in telling our own story because it hasn’t been about us. And then I think in coming into the fund this year, I’m new as executive director to the fund in 2022. You’re right. I feel inspired. There’s been a lot of passion informing the direction of our work. And I want to tell our story.

I think it’s an important one to share. And as I mentioned before around accountability and transparency, I think this is indicative of us wanting to be accountable to the same level of transparency and community rootedness that we ask from our grantee partners and really demonstrating that as a funder, it’s as important to be a member of the movement, to be active and involved in the movement. And not distanced away from it. I think it puts you at a disadvantage for perspective to understand exactly what is needed and the nuances involved and what is needed to support things truly moving forward.

So we’re in it. And I think also I do want to lift up that this is a result of both the adaptability, willingness, and true commitment of the funders that are our partners in this. And the brilliant action and vision of our grantee partners. So it is truly about bridging those relationships, talking to each other, because that people-power is there and that’s what we have. When you combine people-power with capital, true change can happen.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.