, author
Geoffrey Banks
Former Senior Program Officer, Chicago Commitment
, author
John Palfrey

Geoffrey Banks, Senior Program Officer, and MacArthur President John Palfrey share insights about the participatory process that shaped our Equitable Recovery grantmaking, with a focus on advancing racial and ethnic justice.


Last year, we issued bonds to make $125 million of additional grants in response to the twin pandemics of systemic racism and COVID-19. Given the urgency of the moment, a first round of $25 million in Equitable Recovery grants addressed voting and democracy, COVID-19, and systemic racism. Another $15 million supported technology and justice, a fund for social entrepreneurs advancing racial equity, and a fund for Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous arts organizations.

An integral new part of this Equitable Recovery initiative is to implement participatory practices. We engaged a diverse group of external advisors to co-create our grantmaking approach for the remaining $82 million in bond proceeds, which will focus on advancing racial and ethnic justice.

We engaged a diverse group of external advisors to co-create our grantmaking approach.

This builds on our recent 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 began with a Foundation-wide call for nominations of external advisors: people 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-racist lens to our Equitable Recovery work.

Since September, a remarkable group of 12 individuals have served as thought partners, strategic advisors, and critical friends who constructively voice skepticism or concerns. 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 outside the U.S., in Nigeria, India, and Mexico.

Together, they bring equally 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. We have compensated all these advisors for their time, in keeping with our practice across the Foundation’s activities.


group of youth activists marching with a banner

Members of Black Youth Project 100, an organization of Black youth activists creating justice and freedom for all Black people. Photo by Christopher Brown.


Co-Creating Our Grantmaking Approach

External advisors have been meeting with us at least monthly, providing critical input on the possible uses of bond proceeds. Our participatory process 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’ decision-making role. Their input was critical in helping us focus and avoid spreading funds too thinly, one of our key guiding principles.

As our work progressed, we developed 10 concept papers describing potential funding opportunities. We held a series of small group discussions matching external advisors based on their background, expertise, and interests with corresponding Staff teams that crafted the 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.

We asked the external advisors to help us do the difficult work of narrowing down and consolidating the concepts we would ultimately pursue. They helped us prioritize each concept across several dimensions, including its readiness to be implemented, its potential to sustain and strengthen organizations addressing COVID-19 recovery and racial inequities, and its potential to transform systems that disproportionately affect communities of color. We then developed a proposed framework for the Equitable Recovery grantmaking and asked the external advisors to review to ensure it was responsive to their advice and guidance.


Our Resulting Grantmaking Approach

Advancing Racial and Ethnic Justice is the overarching theme that guides our Equitable Recovery grantmaking. Remaining bond proceeds will support grants in four areas:

  • Racial Justice Field Support, with a focus on combatting anti-Blackness;
  • Self-determination of Indigenous Peoples;
  • Public Health Equity and COVID-19 Mitigation; and an
  • Equitable Housing Demonstration Project.
We leaned heavily into advice from external advisors, who encouraged us to think about how the deployment of funds can shift narratives, provoke systemic change, and unlock additional funds.

In the first area, a package of grants will provide infrastructure support for Black-led organizations and advance efforts related to reparations and racial healing. Grants in our second focus area will acknowledge and honor Indigenous communities’ authority over themselves, their distinct needs, and their right to self-determination for how best to heal and build the future they want in the context of recovery from COVID-19. In the third area of focus, our grantmaking will aim to increase health access, vaccine confidence, and accountability for health equity. The final cross-cutting focus area addresses elements of racial justice and public health by demonstrating how housing can reduce incarceration and its disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx people.

We stated our goal at the outset of this process to allocate 50 percent or more of Equitable Recovery grants to organizations that are led by and serve Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities. We intend to exceed that benchmark.

Participatory practices include a continuum of public involvement, ranging from limited input from non-grantmakers to a total ceding of grant decision-making authority to outside actors. Our participatory effort falls in the middle of this continuum.

We leaned heavily into advice from external advisors, who encouraged us to think about how the deployment of funds can shift narratives, provoke systemic change, and unlock additional funds. They also encouraged us to give maximum flexibility to grantees through general operating support and streamlined application and reporting requirements.

While our Staff have determined specific grants, which in turn are approved by the President and the Board, our external advisors continued to play an essential role in referring us to potential grant recipient organizations. They also play an important role in our effort to evaluate and learn from this unique initiative.

We expect to announce newly awarded grants this summer. In an effort to move rapidly, we invited proposals based on recommendations from our Staff, external advisors, and other outside sources we have consulted.


Early Lessons

We aim to learn from our experience and continually refine our approach. 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.

Our participatory journey has been neither easy nor perfect. As we expected and welcomed, external advisors challenged us when they disagreed with our ideas and influenced us with honest, constructive criticism. Our experience affirms that genuinely sharing power requires a cultural shift, an underlying sense of humility, and a readjustment of traditional closed-door practices in philanthropy.

External advisors challenged us when they disagreed with our ideas and influenced us with honest, constructive criticism.

One early lesson has been 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. Another lesson is the need to be flexible: adjusting our timeline to account for the time-intensive nature of 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.

By shaping our grantmaking approach in close collaboration with external actors, we are striving to practice greater transparency and accountability. We are centering the voices of communities that are affected by our decisions and have a stake in our grantmaking outcomes. Ultimately, bringing a diversity of perspectives and experiences to bear led to rich discussions, helped generate new ideas, broadened our sources of knowledge, and, we hope, will result in better decision making.

We look forward to sharing more details about our external advisors and our work with them when grants are announced this summer.

While we still have much learning to do, we extend our deep gratitude to the 12 extraordinary external advisors for their dedication, valuable insights, patience, and good spirit in taking a key incremental step on our participatory journey, together.