Tara Magner, Director, Chicago Commitment, reflects on how trust, time, and transparency help share power and promote more equity and inclusion.


The Chicago Commitment team is nearing its six-year anniversary. Since 2016, when our team was charged with taking a new approach to MacArthur’s local grantmaking, we have endeavored to respond to Chicagoans’ hopes and aspirations for our city and region.

One call that we heard loudly and clearly was the desire to include new and different voices in philanthropy. When we redesigned our traditional arts grantmaking program to have a stronger grounding in racial equity, we added a participatory process for selecting grant recipients. Each year under the Culture, Equity, and the Arts (CEA) program, we invite a group of eight to twelve Chicagoans with a broad diversity of backgrounds and experiences to serve as participatory grantmakers. They review applications for multi-year, general operating support taking into consideration our equity-centered criteria. And they recommend a slate of awards to MacArthur’s leadership. By relying on their recommendations, we seek to give greater voice and power to individuals from outside the philanthropic sector and to distribute resources more equitably.

Three primary themes emerged: trust, time, and transparency.

We previously described the process of developing the CEA program and offered reflections on the first year of relying on participatory grantmakers. Each year, we learn from this process and take steps to improve it. In 2021, our learning and evaluation partner, EDC, met with the participatory grantmakers without MacArthur Staff present to invite their views about the process and outcome. Three primary themes emerged: trust, time, and transparency.



For three years, we invited the same facilitator to lead the process, but to a certain extent, rotated the individuals serving as participatory grantmakers. As a result, each year, there were some new faces in the group. Building trust within this panel was paramount to success. Individuals needed to feel comfortable expressing their honest assessment of the applications they reviewed. We also wanted them to feel welcome to raise questions about the grantmaking criteria and the application itself—in effect, to critique MacArthur’s program and offer advice on how to improve it. The participatory grantmakers developed a set of parameters, agreed upon by all, to ground their conversations. They later expressed the belief that the diversity on the panel—reflecting a range of racial and ethnic groups, life experiences, and careers in a variety of sectors—led to richer discussions and contributed to their willingness to speak freely.



We learned early on that participatory processes take time and should not be rushed. After the first two years, we were advised by the participatory grantmakers to build in more time at each stage of the process, beginning with introductory sessions that allow individuals to get to know one another. We also began:

We learned early on that participatory processes take time and should not be rushed.
  • holding orientation sessions that describe the process in detail;
  • establishing a substantial period of time for the reviewing and scoring of applications; and,
  • increasing the amount of time scheduled for discussion so the panel can reach a consensus recommendation on a slate of grants.

The last step was perhaps the most difficult. We are striving to improve the calendar, integrating this advice as we plan for 2022 and beyond.



Our participatory grantmaking partners expressed a strong desire for MacArthur to be transparent about all elements of the progress. For example, what amount of grant dollars are they helping to distribute across how many grants? Who holds decision-making power at each stage of the process? Will their recommendations be honored or overruled by MacArthur? Who ultimately approves the grants? The participatory grantmakers expressed the belief that having this information upfront will shape their views on whether to join a panel. In addition, they said that the more formal influence the panel holds, the more individuals feel their voices are valued. On the latter point, it is our intent to honor the recommendations made by the participatory grantmakers. To date, all recommended grants have been awarded.

The more formal influence the panel holds, the more individuals feel their voices are valued.

Another key element of transparency is to disclose who is serving as participatory grantmakers and other types of advisors to the Chicago Commitment team. Doing so increases the visibility of less traditional voices in grantmaking, demonstrates the broad diversity of the panel members, and allows us to publicly thank the individuals. For the participatory grantmakers, we ask for permission to post their names after they have completed one full cycle of recommendations. A recent Perspectives piece, Listening to and Seeking Guidance from Local Advisors, explains in greater detail when and how we draw on these voices and shares the names of individuals who agreed to be listed publicly.

We are working to incorporate all that we heard from the participatory grantmakers. While the process remains imperfect, we feel confident that it promotes more equitable and inclusive values in our support for Chicago-based arts and cultural organizations.


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