If "Everything Happens at Parties," This Funder Is on the Right Track

Credit: Chicago Community TrustWe recently highlighted an innovative local collaboration in Chicago that is connecting the MacArthur Foundation, Chicago Community Trust and the Calvert Foundation in a social impact investing effort. While that $100 million initiative made all the headlines, it’s not the only thing that CCT has been up to lately.

Read: In Chicago: Impact Investing for the People, Not Just the Privileged

CCT’s On the Table initiative is another interesting venture. Now in its third year, it aims to get thousands of Chicago-area residents talking about the challenges and opportunities the city and region are facing right now. These conversations take place in small gatherings over a meal. May 10 is the big day for On the Table, and anyone can sign up to host an event.

CCT is also offering cash toward executing some of the good ideas that emerge from these conversations. The foundation’s Acting Up awards will be worth $1,000 each and are available to On the Table participants who come up with actionable ideas.

This effort is intriguing on a few levels. It's an interesting variation on the idea of participatory grantmaking—an idea that's been kicking around since the 1970s, but which has been drawing new interest lately as more funders seek the viewpoints of the "end users" of philanthropic dollars. In convening this effort, and putting some walking-around money behind it, CCT is saying that it doesn't want to be an ivory tower outfit that operates at a remove from ordinary Chicagoans. (Like some foundations.)

Participatory grantmaking has gotten traction from a number of funders, particularly in the social justice space, but it's arguably most useful for funders that focus locally and need to really understand the communities they are trying to help.

We've reported here and there on other local foundations that are putting an ear closer to the ground, and then acting on what they learn. The Weingart Foundation in Los Angeles is a good example, surveying nonprofits and then shaping grantmaking priorities based on that input. What CCT is doing, though, is more similar to the participatory budgeting efforts that some local government have made in recent years—using organized dialogues to capture input from ordinary citizens. 

Related: Weingart Is Not Only Listening to Grantee Feedback, They're Acting On It

The other interesting thing about CCT's effort is the big nod, here, to the logic of collective impact. "The issues facing our region don’t often have a 'quick fix,'" explains the website for On the Table. "On the contrary, progress will only result from residents and organizations working to make contributions that add up to a greater solution that helps unite the place we call home."

Since this initiative centers on a one-day event, and focuses on no specific issue, it's obviously not a real and sustained collective impact effort. Rather, it taps into Jane Austen's famous idea that "everything happens at parties"—namely, that if you bring people together in new combinations, you're likely catalyze new connections and stuff will happen. The fact that you can't predict what that stuff will be makes it all the more interesting. 

To qualify for those $1000 grants, participants will need to submit brief videos (two minutes or less) to CCT. Ideas can be about any subject, as long as they're aimed at community benefit and include Chicagoans working together for the common good. 

The grants are a great incentive for Chicago residents to participate in the On the Table program and CCT is really pushing the initiative this year, even offering $100 gift cards to hosts to offset the costs of setting up a public conversation. Although $1,000 might not sound like all that much to a well-established nonprofit organization, it's something for an individual or activist trying to make something happen from scratch. 

And there's a decent number of these grants to go around, too. There will be up to 50 winners chosen by CCT to split $50,000.

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