Last year, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation revised its grantmaking approach with an eye toward better engaging historically underrepresented demographics and organizations. As part of this effort, MacArthur implemented a participatory grantmaking panel to review and recommend applicants to foundation leadership.

As I noted at the time, it was a refreshing move. While arts funders have made equity a huge priority, few have gone so far as to outsource components of the grantmaking process.

On March 10, the panel recommended 10 organizations to MacArthur’s president and board of directors, who approved multiyear general operating grants. The same day, Geoffrey Banks, MacArthur’s program officer, Chicago commitment, published a thoughtful piece on the funder’s blog providing a detailed overview of the “exciting, challenging and complex” process.

Reflecting on MacArthur’s opening round of participatory grantmaking, Banks told me that approach can be a win-win for funders and organizations.

MacArthur found that “the decision-making process itself was richer and more creative because it was informed by a variety of perspectives, including the panelists’ personal and professional experiences.” The process also provided residents with a sense of agency in addressing challenges in their community. Banks called participatory grantmaking “a concrete way for residents who are not grantmakers to gain insights into philanthropy in the interest of contributing to the civic life of our city.”

The process also pushes applicants to “think deeply about how their work reflects the values of diversity, equity and inclusion” (DEI) rather than primarily answering questions in which the “finished artistic product is the primary focus of the query,” Banks said.

Pivoting Toward Participatory Grantmaking

MacArthur launched its new grantmaking portfolio, Culture, Equity, and the Arts (CEA), in August of 2019. In doing so, MacArthur joined funders like the Hewlett Foundation in revisiting a grantmaking strategy that, to quote Cate Fox, its senior program officer, unintentionally “may have helped to perpetuate the structural racism that exists in the arts sector and society as a whole.”

Banks turned to participatory grantmaking proponents for answers, including the New York Women’s Foundation, the Brooklyn Community Foundation, and the Neighborhood Connections program in Cleveland. “All were incredibly generous with their time,” he said, “lending deep expertise gained by completing numerous rounds of grants made with participatory grantmaking practices over the course of several years.”

In September, MacArthur convened an 11-person participatory granting panel that reviewed and rated 19 applications based on four organizational values or attributes: collaboration; commitment to fostering equity; connectivity, reflecting an organization’s relationship with the city and its neighborhoods; and relevance, considering how the organization is in dialogue with contemporary issues.

While MacArthur subsequently awarded grants to organizations that engaged with historically underrepresented groups, Banks was quick to note that the panel also recommended some larger-budget, historically white-led institutions. “These institutions demonstrated a deep commitment to fostering equity, reflecting creative approaches to diversifying their program offerings,” he said.


At the conclusion of the process, Banks and his team surveyed and conducted in-person interviews with panelists. He told me that the biggest lesson he learned was that an applicant’s commitment to DEI within the organization was “fundamentally tied to the success of those efforts in the organization’s public-facing activities.”

This common ingredient speaks to “who is at decision-making tables, how decisions are made, and how power, resources and responsibilities are shared,” Banks said, and was most often reflected in the panel’s discussion about the demographics of an organization’s lead staff and its board.

Another aspect of the conversation that resonated with Banks was the notion of equity “being baked into the DNA of the organization.” Organizations that foster equity throughout their work, beyond a performance, an exhibit or a program, made compelling cases in their applications to the panel. “Not surprisingly,” Banks said, “this was particularly true for organizations that were established to serve and represent historically marginalized communities.”

Given the small sample size of the inaugurate grant cycle, Banks couldn’t definitively say if organizations were more mature in one of the four eligibility criteria versus another. That said, panelists focused on the value of “fostering equity” throughout the discussions.

For example, on the attribute of “collaboration,” the panel appreciated activities such as working with public school students, presenting a month-long celebration of a particular culture, or offering reduced or free tickets. “If these activities were the only ones pursued by applicants,” Banks said, “the panelists saw them as largely ‘transactional,’ and representing only the initial steps that could be taken to foster equity.”

Click here for a deeper exploration of key themes gleaned from MacArthur’s inaugural participatory grantmaking panel.

Unpacking the “Messiness”

As previously noted, funders may be reluctant to outsource the applicant assessment process to a participatory grantmaking panel. After all, isn’t the primary job of a funder to select which organizations receive funding? Banks told me that he and his team prepared for this reality.

“As we expected from conversations with other funders, our role as program officers shifted to providing guidance, support, and information to the panelists so they could make informed decisions,” he said. Of course, MacArthur still retained control over the process. MacArthur staff recruited the panelists and “having a degree of familiarity with some of the panelists and their backgrounds helped to alleviate some of the uncertainty and preconceived ideas about how the process might unfold,” Banks said.

Banks was struck by the panelists’ “deep engagement with the material and thoughtful discussion” across the assessment process. “I was also slightly surprised by some anxiety among the group at the ‘moment of truth,’ when it came time to actually decide which organizations would be recommended for support, and which organizations they would advise us to decline.”

At the conclusion of the process, multiple panelists told MacArthur staff something to the effect of, “The process can become somewhat messy, at times, but the benefits entirely justify the effort.” What did that “messiness” look like?

During the deliberations, while the pool of applicants was being vetted, “there were moments when some panelists seemed to have different views from others on key ideas,” Banks said. This can be expected in a process where panelists may interpret eligibility criteria like “collaboration” and “connectivity” differently.

Fortunately, MacArthur worked with an independent facilitator to design and lead the deliberative process. “It was critical to engage a highly-capable and experienced facilitator who was masterful at managing complex moments during the discussion and who did not work for MacArthur,” Banks said. “I would encourage other funders to explore this approach.”

MacArthur stakeholders also promoted the Quaker-based model of consensus-building, in which the goal is “unity, not unanimity.” Banks said that this spirit “seemed to help set the tone for a thoughtful and constructive decision-making process.”

Continuous Learning and Refinement

Panelists’ feedback can provide organizations with a useful roadmap to align with funders’ calls for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion.

For example, some applicants “missed opportunities to explain why particular Euro-centric art forms are valuable to the organization’s equity work,” Banks said. Participatory grantmakers thought applicants could deepen their artistic engagement with communities in relation to contemporary topics such as climate change, community development, and neighborhood disinvestment” And applicant responses that were perceived by panelists as taken from pre-existing proposals tended to fall short.

Panelists appreciated organizations’ humility and introspection, particularly in terms of the applicants’ methods for gathering information. “While organizations acknowledge collecting demographic data is something they want to do and know they should do, many organizations reported that they have not previously conducted such a survey, and are in need of guidance and support to do it well,” Banks said.

Looking ahead, MacArthur is considering making several changes based on panelists’ feedback. Some panelists noted that many applications contained similar responses, and wondered if this was due to the limitations of the questions that were asked in the application form. As a result, Banks and his team are gathering information from the panel to revise the narrative questions to help future panels make decisions.

Other possible changes may include holding an informal gathering to allow the participatory grantmakers to get to know each other and build trust as a group before reviewing applications. Most interestingly, MacArthur is also opening the opportunity to apply for Culture, Equity, and Arts grants to more organizations by accepting Letters of Inquiry from the public, rather than solely inviting requests from foundation staff, as was the practice in the past.

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