The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation launched its new Culture, Equity, and the Arts (CEA) program in August 2019. CEA is an entirely new grantmaking portfolio characterized by three critical programmatic elements: more inclusive selection and eligibility criteria; grant amounts that are no longer tied to the size of an organization’s annual budget; and a participatory grantmaking process that recommends slates of grantees for consideration by Foundation leadership. This portfolio is based on the premise that arts and culture are essential for advancing equity because they help people make meaning of their experiences, expose people to different perspectives, build empathy and individual empowerment, and reduce social isolation by bringing people together across age, race, ethnicity, and other social boundaries. In the long-term, the aim is to advance equity by increasing culturally relevant experiences and collaboration between arts organizations, while ensuring that all Chicagoans have full access to the cultural vibrancy of Chicago.


The Participatory Grantmaking Process

In September of 2019, MacArthur staff invited 16 grantee organizations from its previous Arts and Culture grants program to apply as new applicants to the CEA portfolio. In the interest of implementing more equitable and inclusive philanthropic practices, the eligibility criteria were expanded, and three “arts-centered” organizations were identified and invited to apply. For the purpose of the CEA program, “arts-centered” organizations are defined as those where the arts are integral to executing the mission but may not be the primary stated activity (e.g. a human services organization in which arts programming is integral to its violence prevention work).

A participatory grantmaking panel appointed by the Foundation reviewed and rated applications in October of 2019. Foundation staff recruited a panel of eleven diverse Chicagoans to represent a range of racial and ethnic groups, life experiences, and careers in a variety of sectors, including: the arts, media and journalism, community development, and nonprofit programming. Five of the panelists were African-American, four were white, two were Latinx; four were men, and seven were women. Professional backgrounds ranged from early career to retired. An independent facilitator led an extensive deliberative process in which the participatory grantmakers carefully considered all applications based on the following organizational values or “attributes”:

  • Collaboration—the organization actively works with external entities to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes.
  • Commitment to Fostering Equity—the organization recognizes that advantages and barriers exist and strives to ensure access to opportunities and resources for historically underserved communities within its creative practice(s), program(s), and organizational structure.
  • Connectivity—the organization uses its art and cultural practices/programming to build empathy and individual empowerment, bridge divides between people, and/or connect to other familiar or unfamiliar perspectives.
  • Relevance—the organization’s creative work and the organization itself are in dialogue around timely, present-day issues.

After reviewing and discussing applications along with supporting information provided by MacArthur staff, the panel ultimately recommended a slate of ten requests for consideration by MacArthur’s President and Board, which approved all ten multi-year general operating grant awards.     

The participatory grantmakers’ conversations were thoughtful and nuanced, and they applied the new selection criteria rigorously. In the interest of providing greater transparency in illustrating participatory decision-making principles in action, what follows is a summary of selected themes that surfaced from the Foundation’s first round of grants made through participatory grantmaking in the CEA program.


Different Points Along the Equity Journey

The MacArthur Foundation’s Just Imperative incorporates the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion into the Foundation’s actions and decisions. The Just Imperative defines equity as “fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all people, accompanied by the identification and elimination of barriers that prevent full participation of some individuals and groups.” This definition of equity guided Foundation staff in composing questions in the written application to the CEA program.

In reviewing the applications, participatory grantmakers considered which organizations demonstrated meaningful commitments to equity versus those that approached equity as a “transactional” requirement. Panelists recognized meaningful approaches as those that, for example, demonstrated an articulated commitment by the applicant’s leadership to equity across the entire organization and that outlined specific actions and activities that address inequities. By contrast, they identified “transactional” approaches in organizations for which equity was addressed by a small subcommittee, specific department, or designated program. A representative quote from a participatory grantmaker explains this distinction by noting that some unsuccessful applicants “may understand that [they] should address equity but [aren’t] necessarily driven to do so, nor have many ideas for how to do so.” Another panelist remarked, “There appears to be more hope here for equity than actionable plans to advance it.”

Based on the applications submitted, MacArthur staff members believe that this new application process pushed applicants to think deeply about how their work reflects the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. A few applicants confused the process of sub-contracting or the selection of performance venues with genuine two-way collaboration. The application defined collaboration as “actively works with external entities to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes.” A number of applicants highlighted month-long or week-long celebrations of particular ethnic groups as examples of how they were fostering equity. Participatory grantmakers appreciated the honesty of applicants that described this type of engagement as their primary (or only) effort related to fostering equity but urged organizations to be more expansive in their thinking about how the arts could engage (and be enriched by) different cultural perspectives year-round.

Participatory grantmakers noted that some applicants might benefit from shifting the thinking reflected in their language from “we are doing this for a traditionally underserved population” to “we are doing this with that population.” Additionally, applicants could demonstrate a commitment to equity by being more specific in their applications. For example, instead of saying that work is generally being done on the South and the West Sides of Chicago, participatory panelists encouraged applicants to provide more specific information about which neighborhoods and what populations the organization is serving.


Equity is “Baked Into the DNA” of the Organization

For some applicants, fostering equity and being connected to the communities that they are serving are qualities that are embedded in the fabric of the organization. Participatory grantmakers tended to rate organizations higher when they saw the attributes outlined in the application as embedded throughout those organizations’ missions, histories, and core programming. This was particularly true for organizations that serve and represent ALAANA* communities. A participatory grantmaker noted that, for these organizations “equity is not a separate initiative or declaration” and another noted that "’outreach’ looks different when you are actually of the community you serve.”

The reality is that most organizations are between these extremes. Participatory panelists noted that in many cases, equity was primarily demonstrated in the artistic programming of an applicant organization rather than throughout the institution overall.  In this regard, participatory grantmakers noted factors such as whether the applicant organization’s mission is focused on serving historically underrepresented communities, the demographics of its lead staff and board, and the presence or absence of self-defined institutional goals related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

This distinction might be best illustrated by the demographics of the organization’s staff and board. A representative quote was, “the discrepancy between diversification efforts in public-facing activities and those at the management level is striking.” If the creative process was seen as a “leading edge” for equity in organizations, then board diversity was often the “trailing edge.” Organizations that identified specific steps they had taken to strengthen diversity, equity, and inclusion within the organization were rated higher than those that were perceived as sidestepping the issue. Examples of specific steps included participation in anti-racism training opportunities and in national diversity, equity, and inclusion programs.**

Participatory grantmakers responded positively to applicants that were honest about the areas in which they recognized a need to evolve. For those that tried to gloss over or avoid difficult responses, a participatory grantmaker said, “I feel this is a significant missed opportunity for humility and introspection.”


The Challenge of Data Collection

As a result of our own  experience gathering demographic information about our staff and Board, the Foundation appreciates that gathering such data is a highly complex and sensitive undertaking. It is particularly challenging to collect demographic data while respecting individual privacy. MacArthur is in the process of revising our internal practices and reporting to ensure we are acting consistently with additional demographic questions we are asking of our grantees and to continue our intentional and ongoing efforts of building and fostering a diverse workplace.

Similar challenges were reflected in the panelists’ discussion of the applications, which suggests that data collection is an area of underdeveloped capacity in the arts field. Many applicants stated that they collect very little demographic data on board and staff and that what is collected may or may not be standardized across the arts and culture sector. On calls with MacArthur staff, some applicant organizations voiced apprehension about filling out the demographic section of the application. While organizations acknowledge collecting demographic data is something they want to do and know they should do, many organizations reported that they have not previously conducted such a survey.

Multiple participatory grantmakers were surprised by how few of the larger and better-resourced organizations collect detailed demographic data about their staff and board leadership. Here, the participatory grantmakers made a direct connection between an organization’s commitment to collect data on its leadership and how seriously it takes its stated equity goals. One participatory grantmaker wondered how some unsuccessful applicants planned “to affect change in leadership [without] collecting basic demographic data.” Some applicant organizations suggested that they would begin to collect data if funds became available. A participatory grantmaker responded, “I've read several proposals that mention something along the lines of ‘if we receive this investment, we will collect better data.’ I feel this is a red flag for several reasons. Organizations of this size and stature are remiss to not collect data of their own volition. Relying on grant funding to do basic data collection feels like a tactical error. If they don't get the funding will they continue to not collect data? And, if so, can claims of diversification be taken seriously?”


A Clear Commitment to Equity

Participatory grantmakers recommended organizations that made their commitment to equity clear by indicating who is at decision-making tables; how decisions are made; and how power, resources, and responsibilities are shared across the organization and with the communities it serves. The participatory grantmakers found that nonprofits that are serious about equity have strong partners to help them think through and navigate ways to integrate these practices into their strategies, activities, and cultures over the long-term.

The participatory panel recommended a subset of larger-budget, historically white-led institutions for their creative approaches to diversifying their program offerings and for deeply engaging with an array of populations and communities. On the attribute of relevance, one panelist noted: “It seems as if contemporary relevance is a prerequisite for any [applicant organization] program, almost to aggressively disprove the assumption that its work is centered in or looks to the past instead of the future.” Another participatory grantmaker remarked: “For a classical company of [the applicant’s] size and reputation to count more than half of its professional [company] as ALAANA-identified is no small feat, even in 2019. There is room for improvement in terms of racial equity and representation among board and staff members, but [there are] also committees and strategies in place to address those shortcomings.”


Opportunities to Learn and Evolve

Participatory grantmakers saw numerous opportunities for unsuccessful applicants to succeed in the future. Some applicants missed opportunities to explain why particular Euro-centric art forms are valuable to the organization’s equity work and relate to contemporary issues. Such arguments might have strengthened their applications. Participatory grantmakers also thought applicants could deepen their engagement with communities in relation to contemporary topics such as climate change, community development, and neighborhood disinvestment. In contrast, some unsuccessful applicants “expressed hope, but only hope” that their work has relevance and meaning to diverse, contemporary audiences.

Regarding the attribute of collaboration, participatory grantmakers thought that some applicants expressed a “one directional” approach to community engagement. In describing some unsuccessful applicants’ methods, a participatory grantmaker drew a distinction between “wanting to gather input in building trust and deepening relationships with communities through alliances and partnerships [versus] wanting to become a trustworthy ally and partner; the latter is giving, the former is taking.”


Continuous Learning and Refinement

Participatory grantmakers had numerous suggestions, both for unsuccessful applicants and for MacArthur staff to make improvements to the program. For example, participatory grantmakers noted that many applications contained similar responses and wondered if this was due to the limitations of the questions that were asked in the application form. In this regard, MacArthur is working with an evaluation and learning partner called Education Development Center (EDC) to conduct a feedback survey to gather input from the panel of participatory grantmakers. The Foundation is also holding an in-person feedback session with the participatory grantmakers. The aim is to learn from our pilot experience with participatory grantmakers being part of funding decisions, to critically reevaluate our own assumptions, and to continuously refine and improve our approach. Based on this iterative process, future changes may include rethinking the role of program staff to serve as more effective collaborators with non-grantmakers in the grant decision-making process, possible revisions to the application form based on feedback from applicants, and potential adjustments to the facilitated participatory panel deliberation process.

*ALAANA is a term established by Grantmakers in the Arts to describe African, Latinx, Asian, Arab, and Native American, communities.

**See for example Enrich Chicago’s anti-racism training with Chicago Regional Organizing for Antiracism (CROAR), Dance/USA’s Equity Project, and the American Alliance of Museums’ Facing Change initiative.