Still Home, Still a Priority: A Quick Look at MacArthur's Latest Chicago Grantmaking

Does the giant MacArthur Foundation do enough for its home city of Chicago? There's no right or wrong answer to that question, which is tied up in a longer standing debate over where philanthropists and foundations should invest most heavily. MacArthur does more for its home community than some major foundations and less than others. Responding to criticism that it was shortchanging Chicago, the foundation has pointed out that it has invested over $1.1 billion in Chicago since 1978 through grants to over 1,300 local organizations.

Leaving aside the matter of whether this is "enough" for a foundation that gave out $257 million last year alone and operates in a metro area with around 1.3 million people living in poverty, we can say this: MacArthur is a certainly a major player on the city's nonprofit scene, and lately, it's been anxious to remind Chicagoans of that—especially in the wake of a strategic planning process that streamlined its grantmaking.

Earlier this year, the foundation rolled out Benefit Chicago, a new collaboration to mobilize $100 million in impact investments for groups working in the Chicago area. It also backed a new funders collaboration that launched in August aimed at stemming the city's epidemic of violent crime, the Chicago Fund for Safe and Peaceful Communities. And in her essay in the foundation's most recent annual report, MacArthur CEO Julia Stasch pledged to work more closely with local nonprofits. 


Most recently, the foundation announced $11.6 million in new Chicago grants. “MacArthur is deeply committed to Chicago,” Stasch said in a press release. “These new awards build on our long local history and our commitment to help address some of the city’s most pressing challenges—from spurring economic development and creating jobs in struggling neighborhoods to preventing violence, from promoting police reform and accountability to creating opportunities for youth.”

Where's this money heading? Let’s take a closer look.

Economic Development in Chicago

The largest recent grant of all went to this cause, and namely to the Chicago Community Loan Fund/Chicago TREND. MacArthur made a $5 million loan and a $1.4 million grant to support neighborhood retail shopping development in low-income and transitioning Chicago communities. Other smaller grants have been going to study racial segregation in the city and increasing employment through new jobs.

Youth in Chicago

Local youth continues to be a huge area of concern for the MacArthur staff, especially with regard to violence prevention. Seven new grants were awarded for these topics, ranging in size from $10,000 to $500,000. Recent areas of interest include mentoring and counseling for at-risk youth, digital literacy for youth, out-of-school educational programs, and neighborhood safety from gun violence.

Police in Chicago

Like so many cities in America, Chicago has been plagued with more than its fair share of violence involving police. MacArthur has taken its violence prevention grantmaking one step further in Chicago to focus on police reform and accountability. These grants support efforts to increase transparency, documentation, and investigation in the Chicago Police Department and facilitate conversations between community members impacted by violence involving police officers.

Local Arts & Culture

MacArthur has always looked at arts and culture through a local lens. In fact, MacArthur is the largest private funder of arts and culture in the entire state of Illinois and provided more than $11 million in 2016 to more than 300 arts and cultural groups in the Chicago area. MacArthur takes a broad approach to art funding and commonly awards grants to theaters, dance groups, music organizations, visual art programs, film centers, museums, and libraries. The new set of grantees includes Enrich Chicago, the Terra Foundation for American Art, and the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance.

As Stasch said in her annual essay, MacArthur has worked to connect more closely with nonprofits to improve its local investments. Its Chicago Commitment Team went out this year to get input and advice to consider new opportunities for local grantmaking. Topics that came up as a result of these conversations include youth, ex-criminal integration, human services, community activism, and more opportunities in low-income city neighborhoods. It will be interesting to see further how this listening translates into MacArthur's local grantmaking going forward.