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Steel structural beams under the Chicago elevated train.


Participatory Grantmaking engages people with lived experiences and greater proximity to racial injustice to identify funding priorities and allocate grant money.


Like most other family foundations, the Conant Family Foundation has an all-white, all-family, wealth-privileged board. While they are professionals in multiple fields, they aren't experts on all issues.

Sometimes the wisest decision a foundation can make is to move grantmaking decisions to those closer to the issue.

What follows is an overview of the 2023 Grants Team process. It has links to documents you can adapt. Most importantly, it includes messages from Team members themselves, describing their process and intentions. 

Interested in trying participatory grantmaking? Let us know how we can help!

1. Create the Budget

How much money will the participants be allocating? Will the grants be one-year or multi-year? 


Include funds to compensate participants. We provided $1500 each, but will likely increase this amount. 


Decide who will facilitate the process. If staff, do they have the experience and time available? If a consultant, factor in additional fees. Conant Family Foundation's executive director facilitates our PG process.


Consider funds for convenings or other in-person gatherings

2. Develop a Workplan

The workplan details all of the Grants Team's tasks. It also estimates how much time each step will take.


It allows prospective Team members to see what they will be doing and when. It's also an important tool for the facilitator, as it specifies the staff roles and responsibilities, too.


Having learned from previous rounds of participatory grantmaking, Leslie increased the specificity of the workplan and expanded the timeline in 2023 to allow more time for planning, reviewing and evaluating the process.

3. Assemble the Team

We prioritized Chicagoans who understood community organizing, had demonstrated commitments to racial justice, and who reflected the demographics of Chicago. 

Throughout the years we have requested nominations from a leadership program called Chicago United For Equity, Crossroads Fund's Giving Project, and a Block Club Chicago, a local independent news outlet. Now we ask past participants for nominations, too.


This cycle, we Interviewed eight nominees and invited five to join the Team. Past teams have been as big as 10 people but more people = harder to schedule meetings. Consistent participation is key.

4. Address Conflicts of Interest

Everyone has biases, including foundation board members! But there's a difference between bias and personal interest.


Just as foundations beware self-dealing, participants are asked to disclose any financial relationships to applicants.


We discuss the perception of a potential conflict of interest and provide opportunities for disclosure, recusal and abstention.


Context matters. With a policy that requires transparency and accountability, Team members can bring their insights and experiences into the process openly.

Because knowledge about the real work of an organization is an asset, not a liability.​

5. Identify Funding Priorities

The Conant Family Foundation board determined the program area: Community Organizing for Racial Justice. The Grants Team had the privilege and responsibility of identifying the focus and priorities within those broad parameters,


As facilitator, Leslie provided an orientation on grantmaking. First rule: Be specific about what you want to fund so that groups can determine if it is worth applying.


Then, figure out what information you will need from applicants to decide if they should (or should not) receive a grant.

Over several meetings, the Team agreed on a single focus area, funding parameters, and outlined a decision-making process. Leslie shaped the information into a Guidelines document and sent it to the Team for edits and approval.

6. Clarify Selection Criteria

Before a single LOI or proposal came in, the Team discussed criteria for evaluating applicant organizations.

They co-created a Review Rubric that everyone used as a guide. It included summative as well as analytical questions.


While the specific criteria in the Review Rubric must be tailored to the specific funding focus, this kind of tool can be customized for any funding focus.


When the applications came in, the Team reviewed a few LOIs together to "test" and refine the Rubric. 

7. Allocate Grant Funds

Having developed mutual trust and respect through the process, the Team deliberated and came to unanimous decisions. Their final selections were guided by their intention to create a learning cohort.


This is what the Grants Team wrote about their final slate of funding decisions:

We are truly honored and overjoyed to finally share our grantmaking decisions.


We deeply admire and believe in this cohort of amazing grantee partners.

And we want to be clear: we did not set out to assess the value of each applying organization’s work.


Rather, we hope this cohort of grantee partners reflects our commitment to the following:

  • Organizations that are intentionally applying an abolitionist framework and have a clear pathway for deepening the implementation of their framework 

  • Organizations that are building deep community power and centering the leadership of those most impacted


  • Supporting abolitionist work across Chicago

  • Supporting mutual aid structures that build community self-determination and make way for a future where wealth is redistributed and shared in community, not extracted for the benefit of others  

  • Supporting a range of abolitionist organizing addressing prisons, policing, surveillance, housing, gender-based violence, militarism, and the immigration system 

  • Moving more of our resources to smaller organizations and trusting that smaller organizations can and will manage significant growth to their budget

We are so grateful for this opportunity to not only dream but to create together and move resources to transformational abolitionist organizing.

We didn’t have enough funds to abundantly support all the groups doing this work at the level and time length we would want.

​So if you are a funder that is inspired or curious about this recent grant cycle, please connect with us.

This is our joyful and liberating role. 


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