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Lessons from the participatory process that determined our grantmaking strategy to respond to the twin crises of COVID-19 and racism.


In 2020, we issued social bonds to enable $125 million in additional grants in response to the twin pandemics of systemic racism and COVID-19. The first round of $40 million in Equitable Recovery grants addressed a range of areas, including Indigenous women, trans people, and children; voting and democracy, COVID-19, and systemic racism; technology and justice; and helped establish a fund for social entrepreneurs advancing racial equity and a fund for Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous arts organizations.

We convened a group of external advisors to help us identify priorities for distributing the remaining bond proceeds through the second round of grants. In July of 2021, we deployed approximately $80 million in remaining bond proceeds in accordance with an overall frame, Advancing Racial and Ethnic Justice, with four focus areas:


Racial Justice Field Support with a Focus on Combatting Anti-Blackness

  • Support Black infrastructure by building Black power through supporting Black-led and Black-focused organizations.
  • Take a leadership role in positioning reparations and racial healing as issues that philanthropy meaningfully helps to address.


Self-determination of Indigenous Peoples

  • Uplift Indigenous communities by providing support to enable their autonomous pursuit of a recovery that is guided and informed by their priorities, culture, and practices.


Public Health Equity and COVID-19 Mitigation and Recovery

  • Improve equitable access to resources for immediate health-related challenges while simultaneously advancing new models, policies, and infrastructure for greater public health equity and resilience in the future, with a focus on community engagement, vaccine confidence, and accountability—including data, research, and advocacy.


Equitable Housing Demonstration Project

  • Reduce incarceration, reduce housing instability, and restore communities by generating an array of housing solutions that can permanently end the use of jails and prisons as “housing of last resort.”


This strategic approach emerged from a participatory process that included essential contributions and critical feedback from 12 external advisors. Building on our experience in participatory grantmaking in the arts, as well as elements of several efforts that engage external actors—such as our MacArthur Fellows program and our 100&Change competition—we developed a job description and identified external advisors through a Foundation-wide call for nominations of individuals who:

  • represent communities that are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19;
  • are new voices outside of our established networks; and
  • have the ability to apply an anti-racism lens to our Equitable Recovery work.


Equitable Recovery Initiative External Advisors*

The following individuals worked closely with us to co-create our overall strategic approach and did not select any specific grantees or determine specific grants: 

Amanda Alexander
Founding Executive Director, Detroit Justice Center

Prof. Konyin Ajayi, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN)   
Managing Partner, Olaniwun Ajayi LP    

Susan Taylor Batten
President and Chief Executive Officer, ABFE: A Philanthropic Partnership for Black Communities

Lina Rosa Berrío Palomo
Research Professor, Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (CIESAS)

Jonathan Jayes-Green
Vice President of Programs, Marguerite Casey Foundation 

Camara Jones, MD, MPH, PhD
Adjunct Professor, Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University; Senior Fellow, Morehouse School of Medicine

Julie Justicz
Chief Strategy Officer, Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights

Nicolette Louissaint, PhD
Executive Director and President, Healthcare Ready

Paul Rucker
Visual artist, composer, and musician, Curator for Creative Collaboration at Virginia Commonwealth University

Xavier Ramey
Chief Executive Officer, Justice Informed

Saket Soni
Executive Director, Resilience Force

*One external advisor preferred not to be identified.

Together, these external advisors bring diverse professional backgrounds, life experience, and areas of expertise, including public health and medicine, human rights, disaster recovery, criminal justice, arts, disability rights, Indigenous peoples’ issues, and social justice activism. Nearly all members of this ad-hoc group self-identify as African American or Black, Hispanic or Latinx, or Asian American or Asian, and several identify as LGBTQIA+. More than half self-identify as women, and one identifies as transgender. Three external advisors are based in Nigeria, India, or Mexico, countries where the Foundation has or had a presence at the beginning of the initiative.


Our Strategic Approach

An external advisor succinctly summarized our approach as follows: “The goal should be to infuse racial justice as a priority [through investments and important strategies that are not currently widely adopted] into the intersectional issues of health, safety, economic equity, and self-determination for [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] BIPOCs around the world.”

"The goal should be to infuse racial justice as a priority."

In our first focus area, Racial Justice Field Support, a package of grants provides infrastructure support for Black-led organizations and advances efforts related to reparations and racial healing. On this topic, external advisors encouraged MacArthur to “take a bold lead” and emphasized “the importance of MacArthur lending its power and prestige to conversations around racial justice, including reparations, that have historically been ignored by big foundations.”

Grants in our second focus area, Self-determination of Indigenous Peoples, aim to acknowledge and honor Indigenous communities’ authority over themselves, their distinct needs, and their right to determine for themselves how best to heal and build the future they want in the context of recovery from COVID-19. An external advisor commented: “This is breakthrough work in the sector—the Foundation's leadership here is critical.”

In the third area of focus, our grantmaking aims to increase equitable access to healthcare resources and services, with attention to mitigating and recovering from the impact of the pandemic, while also building a more resilient, equitable, and inclusive public health system for the future. Grants support three inter-connected priorities: community engagement; vaccine confidence; and accountability, including data systems, research, and advocacy. External advisors highlighted three essential components of health equity that guided our overall approach: “1. value all individuals equally; 2. rectify historical injustices; 3. allocate resources according to need.”

Regarding building communities and reducing incarceration through housing options in our fourth focus area, an external advisor noted: “Money needs to go to community-based groups or other sectors that have been divested from—e.g., health, education.”


Our Process

One advisor asked whether philanthropic dollars are "the prize or the key" to unlocking additional funding through public/private partnerships.

We asked the external advisors to help us with the difficult work of narrowing down and consolidating the concepts that we would ultimately pursue.

External advisors met as a group on a monthly basis from October 2020 to July 2021. As our participatory work progressed, Staff developed 10 concept papers outlining a wide variety of potential funding opportunities. We asked the external advisors to help us with the difficult work of narrowing down and consolidating the concepts that we would ultimately pursue. Through a nonbinding straw poll, they helped us prioritize each concept across several dimensions, including its readiness to be implemented, potential to sustain and strengthen organizations addressing COVID-19 recovery and racial inequities, and potential to transform systems that disproportionately affect communities of color. In written responses, we invited external advisors to reflect about common threads among the various concept papers and whether any of the 10 concepts could be consolidated. We then synthesized their input from the straw poll and convened a series of small group discussions and monthly full-group meetings to develop the four-part framework for Equitable Recovery grantmaking outlined above. We tested the framework with the external advisors to ensure it was responsive to their advice and guidance.

Throughout the process, we leaned heavily into advice from external advisors, who encouraged us to think about how the deployment of funds can shift narratives and provoke systemic change. One advisor asked whether philanthropic dollars are "the prize or the key" to unlocking additional funding through public/private partnerships. While external advisors did not determine specific grants as essential partners, they suggested potential evaluation and learning partners and referred us to more than 60 potential grant recipient organizations. Ultimately, in the second round of Equitable Recovery grants, approximately two-thirds of grant dollars were awarded to new organizations and projects that have not received support from MacArthur in the past. In an effort to move rapidly, we invited proposals based on recommendations from our Staff, external advisors, and other outside sources we consulted.


Small Group Discussions

Small group discussions were an important aspect of the participatory process. A total of 17 small group discussions took place over two rounds of meetings, matching external advisors based on their background, expertise, and interests with the corresponding Staff teams that crafted the 10 concept papers. Small groups provided an opportunity for an in-depth exchange of ideas and insights between Staff and advisors, giving each a chance to delve into given topics, raise new questions, and refine emerging ideas. Input from external advisors was critical in helping us focus and avoid spreading funds too thinly, one of our key guiding principles for expending the bond proceeds.


External Advisor Input: Racial Justice Field Support

Small groups developed and refined the focus area of Racial Justice Field Support with a focus on combatting anti-Blackness. Regarding these discussions, one external advisor noted: “Given the (exciting) discussion about reparations, I would also suggest funding narrative and culture change work to build the reparations discussion with a majority of Americans.” Another advisor said: “I found this to be the MOST IMPORTANT concept paper of the whole group! It will benefit the Foundation going forward by providing growing expertise on embedding racial justice throughout the Foundation's giving. I am especially enthusiastic about the opportunity for the Foundation to be a leader in putting reparations to Descendants of Africans Enslaved in the United States on the national agenda for policymakers and funders.”

In general, external advisors strongly supported the focus on reparations for the descendants of Africans enslaved in the U.S. and suggested that MacArthur could play a leadership role in making reparations an issue that philanthropy meaningfully addresses. In addition, advisors were encouraged by an explicit focus on anti-Black racism and noted that efforts to address anti-Black racism have positive implications and benefits for other marginalized communities. They highlighted the urgent need to “build wealth” for Black-led racial justice organizations, noting that, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, the infusion of funds to Black-led organizations from philanthropy is limited, temporary, and needs to be sustained. On this theme, one advisor advocated for: “Investing in infrastructure for change. Building political and economic power in Black communities [… and] investing in things that are sustainable through events like pandemics.”


External Advisor Input: Self-determination of Indigenous Peoples

An equally informative series of small group discussions covered the topic of Self-determination of Indigenous Peoples. A premise for the conversation was that “while all of the Equitable Recovery initiative’s proposed areas of work address pressing issues caused or exacerbated by racial inequities and COVID-19, none explicitly center Indigenous peoples, who—while unequivocally not a monolith—share a set of circumstances that place their needs and aspirations apart from other populations politically and societally discriminated against.”

Advisors suggested that Staff consult with Indigenous peoples’ networks to better understand where to focus efforts, such as the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Advisors were encouraged to learn that Staff had previous experience and engagement with Indigenous communities through programmatic work and suggested tapping into those networks as well. Advisors encouraged us to keep in mind that, even in the context of COVID-19, Indigenous communities are also struggling to defend land and territory, natural resources, their culture, and way of life. While COVID-19 has a significant effect, other underlying issues will persist long after the pandemic. Advisors stressed that the voices of women and young Indigenous communities must be heard, and to include both rural and urban Indigenous communities in our approach. 


External Advisor Input: Public Health Equity

External advisors strongly agreed that this area of work is critically urgent. One noted: “It’s really powerful that MacArthur has named COVID-19 mitigation as a focus of the public health thematic area of investment. It’s a huge opportunity to embrace a broad definition of ‘mitigation.’ Examples of expansive notions of mitigation can include advocacy for entire populations left out of COVID-19 relief (like undocumented immigrants), building the workforce needed to build missing but necessary infrastructure (community health, retrofits to buildings), and advocacy for the affordable housing stock that communities of color in epicenters need.”

Conversations centered on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on historically marginalized and underserved communities and regions in the U.S., India, and Nigeria. We heard a clear imperative to prioritize equitable access and greater accountability for equitable public health both currently and long-term. Early on, advisors urged that we “should not be swayed by stories of vaccine hesitancy among Black and Brown communities […] the issue is lack of access […]. Don’t glorify hesitancy.” Advisors also noted the need and opportunity to "strengthen social and physical infrastructure to be more resilient when the next disaster strikes." And they encouraged us to look at "highly impacted communities and go to where the most exposed are. Use workplaces, churches, boys/girls clubs as points of access." Others echoed this point, with one advisor stressing the need to "put focus on non-government organizations that can end up as partners in the community." Finally, many advisors discussed the deep and well-founded distrust of government, healthcare providers, drug companies and vaccines, along with the interconnected and rising challenge of misinformation.

The advisors noted overlap between this topic and another concept paper regarding the mental health needs of BIPOC youth in Chicago, which was consolidated into this focus area as a result. External advisors noted an important disconnect between organizations that work with youth and behavioral health experts who can provide the care that young people need.


External Advisor Input: Equitable Housing Demonstration Project 

Finally, Staff and external advisors discussed a concept paper regarding public safety, re-entry, and policing. With input from external advisors, elements of this early idea evolved into a fourth, cross-cutting focus area that addresses elements of both racial justice and public health by demonstrating ways that housing can reduce incarceration and its disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx people. An external advisor urged us to consider that: “In the criminal justice field, there's a lot of funding focused on tearing down or tweaking the existing system and not nearly enough focused on alternatives, solutions, and what communities need to build up in order to be safe and thrive." Another noted, "Housing is key. Housing is a human right and a component of racial justice [...] We need to open the aperture to use this moment to cement the connection between health and housing, for example." For the external advisors, in the short term, the aim should be to get people out of the incarceration system, while the longer-term goal should be to address broader socioeconomic and racial inequities.


Opportunities to Learn and Evolve

We are mindful that participatory grantmaking practices cover a continuum of public involvement, ranging from limited input from non-grantmakers to a total delegation of grant decision-making authority to outside actors. Our participatory effort fell in the middle of this continuum. Our Staff determined specific grants, which in turn were approved by the President and the Board. Our external advisors played an essential role in shaping our areas of focus and priorities for this initiative and expanding our network by referring us to potential grant recipient organizations, many of which were new to us.


Setting Clear Expectations

One early lesson was the value of clearly defining the external advisors’ role at the outset in terms of co-creating our grantmaking approach, rather than determining specific grants. Our participatory process began with an orientation in October of 2020. This allowed ample time to get to know each other, begin to build trust and a sense of unity of purpose, establish group norms for working together, and set expectations regarding the external advisors’ role.

During our first discussion, one external advisor asked for clarification in this regard, wondering: “Where are external advisors best used?… Will we be making recommendations on grant terms, amounts, or structures? How much should external advisors think about their own networks in terms of where funds should go?” Our sense is that external advisors were not disappointed to learn of constraints around their decision-making power. In a participatory process, it is better to establish clear expectations in the beginning rather than create the impression that external actors have more power than they actually possess.


The Importance of Evaluation

We were asked at the start about expectations for external advisors in terms of the evaluation of the initiative. Two external advisors participated in our Bond Proceeds Evaluation Group, playing an important role in our effort to learn from this unique initiative. This advisory group guides our evaluation work in collaboration with the Foundation’s Office of Evaluation by suggesting, recruiting, and selecting an external evaluation and learning partner, providing input into the evaluation design, and reviewing evaluation findings and final products. We aim to learn from our experience. With our external advisors, we identified Creative Research Solutions and Become as our evaluation and learning partners to measure and report on our progress. We pledge to publicly share the results of this evaluation when it is completed. 


The Complexity of Demographic Categories

An external advisor suggested: “To reduce the risk of exacerbating inequities in funding, I would lean towards funding BIPOC-led and focused organizations.” Early in our process, we shared our goal with the external advisors to allocate 50 percent or more of Equitable Recovery grants to organizations that are led by and/or serve Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and other people of color communities. External advisors asked how the Foundation is defining BIPOC-led and BIPOC-serving organizations for this purpose and challenged us to be specific about what it means to be a BIPOC-led, -serving, and -centered organization. We shared a working definition and invited external advisors to assist with its refinement.  

External advisors warned us about “organizations who use their staff stats to sometimes ‘cover’ for a lack of diversity or qualify for diversity funds” and pressed us to think about the different ways in which racial categorization operates outside of the United States. Others raised complex questions such as, “How is racism operating here? Who is at the table and what is the agenda?” Another offered their own definition as follows: “BIPOC-Led: 50% or more of executive staff AND Board are BIPOC identifying…BIPOC-Centered: employee policies, community-facing programs, and intended organizational outcomes explicitly are focused on the empowerment, inclusion, and advancement of BIPOC persons and communities.” This conversation was instructive in shaping our ongoing efforts to collect demographic data about the organizations we partner with to measure our progress and hold ourselves accountable to our goal.


Flexible, Streamlined, and Supportive Grantmaking

External advisors urged us to give maximum flexibility to grantees through general operating support, a streamlined application process, and relaxed reporting requirements. One advisor asked, “Can we suggest groups or collectives that do not have traditional tax-exempt status? Will there be a way to provide funding to a cohort of organizations that do not have formal status or could benefit from technical assistance?” Another inquired, “For smaller organizations, is it possible to look at what multi-year funding could be extended? If organizations do not have the infrastructure to process applications, will they be discounted?”

In response, changes to our application process included allowing grantees to apply for general operating support by submitting existing materials (e.g., proposals prepared for other funders, existing documents like annual reports, etc.) instead of writing an original narrative proposal. For the Equitable Recovery initiative, we require only financial reports, and information collected from grantees by our evaluation and learning partner will replace written narrative reporting.

We estimate that a significant majority of dollars awarded in the second round of Equitable Recovery grants are in the form of general operating grants. On the significance of flexible, general operating support, one advisor observed: “I’d suggest directing funds to build the infrastructure and capacity of Black-led organizations. As a Black woman ED, the most powerful support has been having the general operating support funds to be able to hire a Deputy Director, Director of Operations and HR, etc. When my deputy came on board, I went from nine direct reports to two, and it’s allowed me to be much more focused and effective in my leadership (and has made it possible for me to do more writing, etc.). Many Black-led organizations are just too lean and would really benefit from more general operating support for personnel. I’d focus on shoring up the budgets and infrastructure of these organizations as a top priority.”


Continuous Learning and Growth

We strive to practice greater transparency by providing detailed insights into our participatory process and into our attempt to center the voices of communities that are affected by our decisions and have a stake in our grantmaking outcomes. This paper is intended to be a modest contribution in that regard. 

One external advisor eloquently stated: “Disasters offer openings for extraordinary and accelerated change. The measures that we take (wearing masks, applauding workers) and allow our government to take (spending $2 trillion) during and after a disaster can be normalized, and transcend emergency policy to become a new normal in policy. It is possible to embed disaster recovery, including COVID-19 recovery, with measures that produce equity, and progress on the things we care about—like racial justice, Native sovereignty, and the expansion of public health equity (as well as immigrant rights, gender justice, criminal justice, climate justice, etc.) This type of progress is possible, but absolutely not inevitable.”

Ultimately, bringing a diversity of perspectives and experiences to bear led to rich discussions, helped generate new ideas, broadened our networks, and, we hope, resulted in better decision-making. Our participatory journey has been neither easy nor perfect. As we expected and welcomed, external advisors challenged us when they disagreed with our proposals and influenced us with honest, constructive criticism. Our experience affirms that sharing power in a genuine manner requires a cultural shift, an underlying sense of humility, and a rearrangement of traditional closed-door practices in philanthropy.

We took three key lessons:

  • the importance of setting clear expectations for external actors’ decision-making power.
  • the need to be flexible, adjusting our timeline to account for the time-intensive nature of the participatory process.
  • the importance of trust-building in the participatory process. We worked to create a safe space where external actors are truly welcomed into the conversation, invited to share openly and honestly, and where their voices are heard.

We extend our deepest gratitude to 12 extraordinary external advisors for their dedication, valuable insights, patience, and good spirit in helping us take a key incremental step on our participatory journey, together. 


*We applied the following nine Guiding Principles to our Equitable Recovery grantmaking:

  • Sustain and strengthen organizations addressing COVID-19 recovery and racial inequities.
  • Focus the use of the proceeds to have maximum impact and avoid spreading funds too thinly.
  • Seek to change or transform systems that have historically affected and continue to disproportionately affect people of color.
  • Prioritize fields where we have strong partners, and/or have a comparative advantage as a leader.
  • Leverage our Staff expertise and networks to accelerate grantmaking and amplify impact.
  • Consult with and obtain input from communities that will be affected.
  • Be alert to emerging organizations and coalitions that may be important to support in targeted areas of work.
  • Prioritize opportunities to collaborate with other funders to increase opportunity for impact.
  • Establish metrics and goals in advance and systematically assess success or failure of the work supported as it proceeds.