Looking at the Forest
January 9, 2020 | Perspectives | Chicago Commitment

Tara Magner, Director of Chicago Commitment, reflects on the impact of institutional support awards that aim to help organizations plan for the future.


We believe that resilient organizations are necessary to achieve our vision of an equitable Chicago. Since 2017, MacArthur’s Chicago Commitment has made 21 institutional support awards to local organizations in support of that vision. These grants provide dedicated funds for an organization to focus on itself, develop internal strength, and plan for the future.

In November 2019, we invited the recipients of these grants to reflect on their impact. The organizations work in a variety of sectors and geographic areas, including communities of color and neighborhoods that have experienced decades of disinvestment. Some focus on community economic development; some work to reduce gun violence in Chicago; others provide legal aid and run arts programs for youth. Each works tirelessly to fulfill its mission, often with far fewer resources than it needs.

We asked the organizational representatives to reflect on what was helpful and what was challenging about institutional support awards. What followed was a conversation rich with candor, hard truths, and sound advice that will help us improve our grantmaking.

Several organizations shared that the opportunity to seek institutional support encouraged them to think more expansively about staff structure, board composition, fundraising strategies, and capital campaigns. Others used resources to renovate physical office space and rehabilitate buildings to better reflect the needs of the populations they serve. And some implemented organization-wide technology upgrades or established cash reserves or endowment funds. 

Many grant recipients had recently experienced significant expansion in programming and growth in staff. A focus on the long-term strength of the institution helped grant recipients recognize how resilient they had been in the past but also pushed them to think more broadly about future goals and infrastructure. One participant said that the grant allowed the staff to shift from “looking at the trees to looking at the forest.”

We heard a call to action for philanthropy… to lead their peers and advocate for changes in grantmaking practices.

The institutional support awards also highlighted new challenges. For groups that grew quickly, and where staff members had spent years fulfilling multiple roles at once, it was hard for long-serving staff and others to respect their new, more narrowly defined positions. A few groups commented that they retained a “start-up” mentality even if their organization had existed for ten or twenty years.

The institutional support awards are typically calculated to give 10 percent of the organization’s annual budget each year for a maximum of four years. Organizations asked us to consider a time commitment of five years or longer. After all, a handful spent two of the four years of their grant term developing and putting new policies or practices or structures in place; now they are nervous about the term ending before all changes have been fully implemented.

Smaller-sized and younger organizations called for the award size to be calibrated at a higher rate. They said that a larger award could have a more transformative effect, allowing them to make bigger investments in their infrastructure which, in turn, could position them for long-term institutional health.  

While these awards enabled some long-serving leaders to consider their legacy, some individuals spoke of the professional and personal challenges they face as they think about retirement and succession planning. A leader who has no retirement plan of their own struggles with how to prepare for their future, while simultaneously feeling guilt in recruiting a successor to face equally daunting circumstances.

Organizations that assist populations that have experienced trauma expressed the need to support their staff, many of whom may experience or relive trauma on the job. The list of additional needs is long—it includes childcare, transportation, and the flexibility to work from home at times—and reflects the daily reality of dedicated nonprofit staff.

Lastly, we heard a call to action for philanthropy, especially among larger-sized foundations like MacArthur, to lead their peers and advocate for changes in grantmaking practices. The Chicago Commitment team is thinking about how to address these critical issues in the future and we pledge to look for opportunities to overcome these challenges. We will carry the voices we heard into all areas of our work, because we know that what these 21 organizations face is not unique to them. Indeed, the organizations we support are advocating for their peer organizations as much as for the populations they serve. We are grateful to these grant recipients for working in partnership with us and, through their honesty and candor, helping us to improve our practices and live our values.


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