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Shifting Power and Co-Creating Equity: An Experiment in Decolonizing Wealth

The Foundation's Community Organizing board committee was excited about creating a program area for grassroots community organizations. They knew that the communities most impacted by policies must have a voice in shaping those policies. Racial injustice is buried deep in Chicago, and one way to root it out is to empower organizations led by and for people of color.

Board members Monica, Sarah and Kyle had $250,000 to allocate and a general idea of where it should go. It's one thing to fund racial justice, they realized, but it's another thing to actually do racial justice. Could there be a more equitable process than three white people with wealth privilege deciding who should get the funding?

Together, the board committee and Leslie Ramyk, Conant Family Foundation's executive director, decided to try something different. But they weren't sure where to start, and didn't want to make huge mistakes along the way. A brainstorming session with Chicago United for Equity leaders resulted in an action outline: 

1.  Seek input from community organizers of color. Ask them about their current work and emerging needs. Find out what kind of proposal formats they prefer. Develop guidelines based on their recommendations.

2.  Create an external proposal Review Team, a diverse group of people who really know Chicago, who have personal commitments to racial justice. Let them review the proposals and decide who gets the money, and how much.

3.  Make those grants. Don't treat the Review Team as "advisory" and change their results. Finally, pay Review Team members stipends in appreciation for their time, expertise and intellectual labor.

We followed these steps. Here's what happened.


Leslie tabulated results, compiling all votes into a chart. The Review Team shared their reactions to each others' ratings, examined patterns and surprises, and realized they didn't have enough money to fund all of their highly-rated organizations.


The Review Team asked Leslie to plot out the organizations on a map and create a table with annual budget sizes, issues addressed and communities impacted. Reviewers were intentional about racial equity and geographic diversity.

This is a map of the organizations the Review Team ultimately decided to fund.

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Step 3



Many Review Team members were familiar with community organizing in Chicago and expressed concern about possible conflicts of interest. Leslie facilitated the co-creation of a Conflict of Interest Policy to safeguard the process. Every Team member signed it.


The Review Team then identified criteria for proposal review and overall priorities. Knowing there would be more proposals than could be funded, they requested a rubric to use as a guide. Staff designed a chart, the Review Team discussed and refined it, and Team members filled out one of these for every proposal they read.

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 We turned to three trusted nonprofit organizations to help us identify potential Reviewers. Two of the organizations were grantees and one was a social justice foundation with a sustained commitment to participatory grantmaking:

  • Chicago United for Equity (CUE)

  • Crossroads Fund

  • Block Club Chicago


CHICAGO UNITED FOR EQUITY invited Conant Family Foundation's executive director to speak with the CUE Fellows,  a diverse group of leaders engaged in a year-long process to "learn, build, and activate a strategy for racial equity" in Chicago. During her presentation, Leslie told the Fellows that bringing in non-family members to review proposals and make grant decisions would be an opportunity to create equity by shifting power. It would be a learning experience for Review Team participants as well as the Conant Family Foundation. She invited Fellows to consider serving as Reviewers.

CROSSROADS FUND nominated five Giving Project members. Through the 10-month Giving Project, members participated in workshops on race and class, political education, and training on fundraising and grantmaking that included reviewing grants through a systems-change lens. Crossroads Fund staff, all of whom are people of color and have trusting relationships with Giving Project members, selected thoughtful individuals committed to racial justice. These five would bring their lived experiences, systems-change perspectives, and familiarity with grantmaking to the Review process.

BLOCK CLUB CHICAGO is a nonprofit news organization "dedicated to delivering reliable, nonpartisan and essential coverage of Chicago's diverse neighborhoods." As a function of their work, Block Club journalists have in-depth knowledge of Chicago's diverse communities. Block Club nominated two young journalists of color to bring their on-the-ground insight and authentic community relationships to the Review Team.


Ten people agreed to serve on the Review Team. They all lived and worked in Chicago, and together they represented a rich diversity of experiences and identities. They varied in age, gender and sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, and immigration status.

Step 2



Staff developed a workplan specifying tasks, meetings and a timeline so potential Reviewers could make an informed decision to participate. Based on this scope of work, the board committee approved a stipend of $1,000 per Review Team member.


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Leslie reached out to several organizers from diverse backgrounds, working in different areas of the city and focused on different issues. She synthesized their guidance and developed guidelines that reflect their insights and recommendations.

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Step 1

Step 4


The Review Team allocated $250,000 to 17 organizations.


The board committee unanimously accepted their list without change.


Leslie informed the organizations that were declined and provided  information explaining why this was the outcome.


Leslie then reached out to the organizations that were awarded grants to share the news. Due to the COVID-19 stay-at-home order, funding was delivered via wire transfer, not paper checks.

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The Review Team graciously agreed to a post-survey. Nine out of the 10 Reviewers provided "Brutally Honest" feedback to our questions.


More will be posted here as we continue to improve our efforts to shift power and create a  more equitable grantmaking process.

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I'm writing this on June 9, 2020. This entire process happened during the COVID19 stay-at-home order and then the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality. Racial equity has been a common term in philanthropy for some time now, but we are all figuring out how to make it a reality. We sincerely hope this is a step in that direction. All of us here at the Conant Family Foundation welcome your feedback and suggestions for improvement. 

-Leslie Ramyk, CFF ED

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