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PEAK Grantmaking

Implementing More Equitable Practices in Social Justice Grantmaking

PEAK Insight Journal recently talked with Deborah Clark at Woods Fund Chicago about the foundation’s mission of social justice and the way it uses more equitable grantmaking practices to support that mission. Her comments, in the Q&A below, were enlightening.

INTERVIEWER: When we talked at the recent PEAK Grantmaking Midwest Chapter meeting, you noted that you had implemented many of the equitable grantmaking practices we discussed there. Can you give three or four specific examples of practices Woods Fund Chicago implemented to achieve greater equity in its funding?

CLARK: Woods Fund Chicago developed a diversity requirement for board members and senior staff to ensure leadership at organizations in Woods Fund’s portfolio include people of color. We provided capacity- building grants and trainings for grantee organizations to identify places where they would like to grow and learn. We convened grantees and foundation colleagues to share with each other what we have learned about advancing racial equity. We increased funding for campaigns and coalitions working explicitly to reform and/or dismantle structurally racist policies and institutions. We used a racial equity framework to guide the foundation’s entire operations, including procurement and investment.

INTERVIEWER: Did you encounter any barriers in implementing these practices, and how did you overcome them?

CLARK: Yes, there were barriers. While the staff initiated the push toward an explicit stance on racial equity, we had to arm ourselves with as much information as possible to help the board understand the importance of racial equity work and to get the majority of board directors to agree with the shift in direction. The same is true for our grantees, who were very concerned about how the change would affect their funding and whether Woods would continue to support community organizing in the same way.

However, both the board and grantees realized that nearly all the issues Woods Fund’s grantmaking has aimed to combat—violence, poverty, and lack of access to education and affordable housing—could be traced back to inequities created by systemic racism. For years, all of Woods Fund grants have been in support of achieving racial equity.

INTERVIEWER: Let’s back up and talk about your foundation’s social justice mission and why you believe this work is important?

CLARK: Woods Fund Chicago is a grantmaking foundation committed to the promotion of social, economic, and racial justice through the support of community organizing and public policy advocacy that engages people who are most impacted by public policy challenges.

Woods Fund is one of the few foundations in Chicago that fund organizations and initiatives working to combat societal barriers affecting individuals most impacted by structural racism and economic injustice. The idea that those who have been most impacted by structural racism and economic injustice should lead the process of defining problems and developing solutions for their communities is empowering for them and their community. Through grants Woods makes Chicago residents learn how to navigate the judicial and legislative systems to create lasting change in the community. Who better to do so, as they are the ones who know what needs to be addressed in their community for positive and impactful change to happen.

INTERVIEWER: Talk a little bit about changes Woods has made in its grantmaking strategies to be more equitable? (Who you fund, what type of grants, size of grants, etc.)

CLARK: Woods Fund Chicago has a long history of funding organizations and initiatives working to combat structural and societal barriers that bar individuals in Chicago’s low- income neighborhoods from equal access to opportunities and advancement.

In 2002, Woods Fund conducted an independent evaluation of its grantmaking and found that very few of its community organizing grants were going to Chicago’s South Side, which includes the city’s lowest-income communities. In 2004, Woods Fund Chicago created the South Side Initiative, a special grantmaking program designed to increase organizing capacity in those communities. Through this initiative, the foundation awarded $222,000 in grants to eight South Side organizations over two years.

In 2008, Woods Fund began its racial equity journey. The board of directors and staff engaged in a discussion around how Woods Fund would identify racial equity as a priority for its grantmaking and operations. After convening stakeholders, hosting discussions, and learning a great deal, in 2009, the board approved a racial equity framework to guide this as a priority in Woods Fund’s grantmaking.

In 2018, we updated our core program areas to the following three, including key tactics for each:

Community Organizing

  • Prioritize and engage people most impacted
  • Ask whether solutions are community-based and if funding builds an informed power base
  • Participate in coalition building

Public Policy Advocacy

  • Seek to create systems change
  • Ensure people most impacted have a voice in the policymaking process
  • Participate in coalition building
  • Maintain a strong track record of working with community-based organizations
  • Demonstrate an ability to influence policymakers and the policymaking process

Integrated Approach: Community Organizing and Public Policy Advocacy

  • Seek to create systems change
  • Prioritize and engage people most impacted
  • Maintain community-based processes
  • Participate in coalition building
  • Demonstrate an ability to effectively influence policymakers and the policymaking process

Grant funding amounts depend on the size, capacity, and demonstrated efficacy of the organization. Funding amounts generally range from $15,000 to $55,000, with those to new applicants ranging from $15,000 to $25,000.

INTERVIEWER: How have your practices changed to get dollars out of the door and grants to new organizations in more equitable ways?

CLARK: For our upcoming grant cycle, we implemented key changes to our grantmaking guidelines across our entire portfolio. To advance on this racial equity journey together with Woods Fund, applicants should:

  • Have an explicit racial equity and economic justice focus
  • Demonstrate that people of color constitute the majority of organizational leadership
  • Have an executive director or board chair who is a person of color, for consideration for multi-year funding

INTERVIEWER: As you look ahead, what is next on the horizon for Woods Fund? Are there additional practices that you’re looking to shift or change to expand this work and promote Woods’ mission?

CLARK: As we have just implemented the practices mentioned above, our next step will be to monitor and evaluate outcomes and make adjustments, as needed.