Tara Magner, Director of Chicago Commitment, writes about eliminating the “black box” of grantmaking to promote more equitable practices as we work toward racial equity in Chicago communities.
In 2023, a consistent concern we heard from grant recipients, peer funders, and others working to overcome inequities is that we are collectively backsliding, and that the progress made toward racial justice and greater equity in our society since 2020 is ephemeral. Social justice and human service organizations fear that philanthropy will return to what was perceived as business as usual, adopting lofty rhetoric about equity but not incorporating practices that will achieve systemic change within the sector.
I have asked many individual leaders in different roles and sectors across Chicago if they share these concerns. Most say “yes.”
As the Chicago Commitment team implemented shifts in some areas of work throughout 2023, we sought to ground our grantmaking practices in our values and ensure that we do not veer off course.
They say that the devil is in the details. With grantmaking, those details might seem dry and uninteresting to a lay reader, but they can make all the difference to a nonprofit leader. Multi-year general operating support, an indirect cost rate of 29 percent for project grants, and a streamlined application process—these technical developments ease the burden on nonprofits. They are all grantmaking practices rooted in trust we have adopted that can help cement systemic change.
We are also striving to be more participatory, open, and transparent in our practices and communications.
A momentous shift took place in our arts and cultural funding in 2023 as we launched a new grantmaking partnership, called A Road Together (ART), with the Field Foundation. This new program is deeply committed to equitable practices and outcomes. Like MacArthur’s direct grantmaking program, Culture, Equity, and Arts (CEA), the ART program has guidelines rooted in equity and uses a participatory process, involving external actors, to recommend grant recipients. We recognized that the shift to the ART program would result in disappointment for some organizations that had been grantees for years through MacArthur’s legacy arts programs—some of whom indeed no longer receive funding. Nonetheless, we felt that a fundamental shift was necessary and overdue because of the persistent underfunding of so many organizations serving historically marginalized communities. With CEA’s equity-based practices now in place for five years, and ART successfully launched in 2023, we feel confident that our commitment to equitable funding in the arts is unshakable.
In addition, as we consider our commitment to equity, we are surveying our practices alongside our funding priorities. Grantseekers have made the point that while a just and fair outcome of equitable grantmaking can represent progress, all too frequently foundations operate in an opaque manner—referred to as the “black box.” We acknowledge this critique. While we have adopted participatory practices for our arts funding, and we invite external nominators to advise us in some other areas of grantmaking, we are examining how to be more transparent about selection and decision-making processes across the board.
With our participatory processes, we typically ask external actors—both those advising us on strategy and those recommending grant recipients—for permission to share their names at the end of the process. This allows the individuals to complete a cycle of grantmaking before deciding whether they wish to be publicly associated with it. To date, we have done this with external advisors and participatory grantmakers. We hope that when readers see the lists of advisors on our website, they will have confidence that our work is truly informed by outside voices with deep connections to Chicago’s communities.
We are currently engaged in a process of relying on the advice of external nominators for our place-based economic development grants. These nominators helped to generate a list of potential grant recipients that is longer than the number of organizations we can ultimately fund. While they do not recommend specific grants—MacArthur's President and Board determine the final slate of grantees—in the spirit of transparency, we will ask them if we can make their names public next year as that process wraps up.
These steps leave much more to do. They do not eliminate the “black box,” even if they shine some light into it. We welcome ideas for additional action we can take to demonstrate that our commitment to equity is strong and steadfast, and to ensure that the shifts in practice we are adopting now sink into MacArthur’s firmament.