Elevating Others’ Voices While Finding Our Own
December 17, 2018 | Perspectives | Chicago Commitment

Since its inception, MacArthur’s Chicago Commitment has sought to expand our relationships with community-based organizations. In developing our strategy, we invited advice and input from activists and artists, neighborhood leaders and entrepreneurs. We incorporated what we heard and created a strategy that was effectively co-designed with this broad range of advisors and experts. As we implement the strategy, we will continue to seek counsel as part of our continuous learning.

One of our goals is to help elevate the voices of Chicago leaders as they work to improve community safety and promote equity and prosperity for all. We tend to think of grantmaking as our most prominent opportunity to support leaders. Yet, we increasingly hear of organizations’ desire to interact with, network with, and learn from one another. Colleagues seek public events that provide a platform for less traditionally recognized leaders—such as artists and community organizers—to demonstrate how their work enriches the city. People want events to be held in neighborhoods where they work and live, rather than solely downtown, and in facilities that are accessible to all. We held two events on inclusive economic growth in 2017 and on violence prevention in 2018 that incorporated many of these lessons. And we will continue to support opportunities to hold conversations in communities.

One of our goals is to help elevate the voices of Chicago leaders as they work to improve community safety and promote equity and prosperity for all.

Our team is also considering how to offer support to nonprofits to help them develop their internal strength and plan for the future. Many have asked for organizational development support with financial planning and operations, communications, board development, and evaluation, among other skills. We are exploring how to incorporate these services into existing grant programs and make them available to organizations that do not receive funds directly from MacArthur.

This last point raises one of the issues we are grappling with as a team. We want to build relationships with organizations that we have not previously known well or supported through our grantmaking. We know it takes time to build trust and allow relationships to develop. In the past, MacArthur has relied on intermediaries to facilitate this process. An intermediary brings its own knowledge and expertise while helping to manage day-to-day tasks and grantmaking functions. This frees up our staff to interact directly with organizations’ leaders and staff, while also learning from the intermediary. As we gain knowledge from these partners, we can refine and improve programs.

Yet, when we make direct grants to nonprofits for the first time, the recipients often report that they receive benefits beyond the value of the grant dollars. For example, in 2017, federal executive orders dramatically increased enforcement of immigration and refugee laws, leaving many Chicagoans vulnerable to discrimination or deportation. Our team made a number of grants to support local responses. Several of those awards supported organizations that did not have prior relationships with MacArthur, such as the Arab American Action Network, the Ethiopian Community Association, and Raise the Floor Alliance. In a subsequent evaluation of the grants, organizations without a prior direct relationship to us stated that the awards raised their level of visibility with national organizations, validated their work, and helped them to be seen as leaders in their fields. The awards caught the notice of national funders and enabled some to secure new support. One organization felt that the package of grants showed that “the full weight of the Foundation will be there to support Chicagoans.”

We have traditionally sought to maintain a relatively low profile while striving to promote our grant recipients’ extraordinary work. Operating in this manner may miss an opportunity, however, as we have been told there can be value to organizations having a direct and public relationship to MacArthur. We are exploring how to demonstrate that value across our work, whether through direct grants, intermediaries, public events, organizational development support, or other mechanisms.

As we implement our strategy, we will continue to look for creative ways to build relationships that maximize the potential for organizations to be recognized and celebrated as leaders, facilitate their ability to collaborate with others, enable them to achieve their goals, and demonstrate MacArthur’s enduring values.


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