Don't Worry, Chicago, MacArthur Hasn't Let Ambition Go To Its Head

Many foundations like to show their hometown some local love. And then there's the MacArthur Foundation.

The Chicago-based grantmaker's Creative & Effective Institutions program awards organizations that are "important to their fields and to the foundation’s goals for those fields, exhibit strong leadership and governance, have demonstrated impact that is likely to continue into the future, and are ready to implement a plan for expansion or sustainability — not just of the programs but of the organization itself," according to MacArthur.

Since its inception in 2006, the program awarded grants to organizations from all over the world. For example, as previously noted here at IP, 2013's class of winners hailed from India, Mexico, Ecuador, Kenya, and the United States.

But that was then.

The foundation announced that it will direct all of its MacArthur Awards for Creative & Effective Institutions to arts organizations residing in Chicago. Grants range from $200,000 to $1 million each will be given to 14 Windy City-based groups spanning the fields of jazz, theater, film, dance, opera, visual art, and more. As always, winning organizations already received some MacArthur funding and are nominated internally.

So what gives? Why the change?

Well, just to be clear, MacArthur has always been a strong local funder of the arts. And as president Julia Stasch said, the foundation felt like now was a good time to reaffirm that commitment by making a bold statement to the Chicago arts community at large:

There's always some question, in a period of transition in the foundation — particularly in a foundation like MacArthur, in Chicago — about its continuing commitments to Chicago. So we thought this would be a good year to have the recipients drawn exclusively from the arts and culture community. Obviously, we feel very strongly about the city's vibrant cultural life, and at the same time we could underscore our commitment to our hometown.

The key word in Stasch's quote is "transition." When she came aboard last year, we wondered if she'd be able to streamline a foundation that seemingly wanted to be all things to all people. At the same time, we were curious to see if Stasch would lead the foundation toward bigger, risker bets— she's the consummate insider; prior to her gig as interim president she was vice president for U.S. Programs.

It's precisely these types of words — transition, risk, bets — that probably kept Chicago-based MacArthur recipients up at night. Much like Darren Walker over at Ford, who talked about streamlining the foundation's grantmaking, nonprofit directors and their boards sweat bullets whenever buzzwords like "evolution" and "reorganization" and "transition" are thrown about by new executives, and rightly so. Arts organizations prefer less sexy words. Consistency. Predictability. Stability.

And so MacArthur is essentially saying to the Chicago arts ecosystem, "Things may seem a bit up in the air at the moment, but we're with you. We've got your back."

Secondly, if MacArthur's decision sounds like an interesting experiment, it's because, well, it is an experiment. "Contrary to the way that we've approached this award in the past, where they were given to organizations from around the world, doing it thematically like this — arts and culture in Chicago — was an experiment," said Stasch.

It's an experiment that's just one piece of MacArthur's larger funding pie to Chicago arts organizations. We crunched the numbers and the 14 winners of this round of Create & Effective Institutions grants netted a grand total of $6,500,000. According to a MacArthur Foundation statement, it provides annual support to more than 300 arts and culture groups in the city, totaling more than $10 million annually.

And as the word "experiment" suggests, Chicago-based arts organizations shouldn't expect this to be an annual occurrence, at least as far as the Creative & Effective Institutions program is concerned. Next year, Stasch noted, MacArthur may present the awards to reflect other "themes" beyond geography or sector.  

The issue of how much to fund locally is a perennial one for top foundations with big ambitions. How do you effect major change without turning your back on the community in which you operate? For some global foundations, like Rockefeller, one answer is to have a separate local program. A number of the big foundations that have scaled up in the past 15 years or 20 years — Gates, Hewlett, Packard, and Moore — all have distinctive local programs. Another big foundation that has recently scaled up, Helmsley, created a New York City regional grants program in 2014, as we reported. 

Related: Oh, Right, Help Thy Neighbor: Helmsley Takes on New York's Problems

Another wrinkle to all this is how regional funders struggle to maintain their local focus, resisting the siren call of acting on a larger stage. The Barr Foundation is a good example of a funder that's been disciplined in this regard, ending a nascent global program and doubling down in its home area. That decision struck us as smart because Barr doesn't have the big bucks of a place like Hewlett or Packard. It's more likely to truly have impact with a narrower focus. 

As one of the true giants of the foundation world, MacArthur has, if anything, lately raised its sights in terms of being a global and national player, taking bold steps to tackle problems like climate change and mass incarceration.

But don't worry, Chicago, MacArthur hasn't let ambition go to its head or forgotten where it came from.