Worth the Participation Trophy

What kind of activities create a more just, sustainable, and equitable world? And how can we find out what is going on in our own communities to solve local problems? One grassroots idea that has been spreading in the last decades is participatory budgeting. 


Participatory budgeting (PB) is a democratic process in which community members decide how to spend part of a public budget. It gives people real power over real money.

PB started in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, as an anti-poverty measure that helped reduce child mortality by nearly 20%. Since then PB has spread to over 7,000 cities around the world, and has been used to decide budgets from states, counties, cities, housing authorities, schools, and other institutions. 

The New York Times calls PB “revolutionary civics in action”—  it deepens democracy, builds stronger communities, and creates a more equitable distribution of public resources.

Usually, PB follows a set of steps over a year. It starts with a citizen steering committee designing a process, or rules and an engagement plan, for the community. Then, citizens can brainstorm ideas in meetings or online, to discuss. Citizen volunteers then develop some of the best ideas into proposals. Residents then vote on the proposals and decide which will serve the community best. Those voted on by the community receive funding from the government’s PB fund for implementation.


While PB describes an alternative and equitable approach to government spending, how can the private sector participate in these strategies?


When it comes to PB in local communities, companies in those communities can also have a voice. In the original PB pilot in Brazil, representatives from the industrial companies that employed many people in the city were organized into a commission that had a voice in the city’s participatory budget committee. Working together, they were able to engage with and commit to ideas brought directly by citizens.


Recently, private organizations have started implementing PB, too. Sharing decision-making power can lead to more equitable and effective spending, increase the engagement of members of the organization, and create opportunities for leadership development. The nonprofit Participatory Budgeting Project has developed a tool for organizations, Change from Within, to help make that happen. And really, isn’t a vibrant, engaged community worth the participation trophy?

Adapted from the Participatory Budgeting Project.