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In Chicago, a Case Study in the Ethics of Cultural Philanthropy

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Protesters outside the MacArthur Foundation headquarters (image courtesy The Black Star Project)

Last Friday the Black Star Project, an organization that works to eliminate the racial achievement gap in Chicago, hosted a “Children’s March on the MacArthur Foundation” in front of the foundation’s headquarters in the city. The Black Star Project states, “The children of Chicago are demanding that $100 million of the $7 billion MacArthur Foundation has in assets be used to invest in Black communities and help Black children in Chicago survive violence in their communities.”

It’s a little strange to demand a foundation give away its money, because nobody is ever entitled to a gift. At the same time, what are the ethics of a foundation sitting on a pile of money, doling it out little by little, in the context of urgent need? Black Star’s campaign asks troubling questions about the ethics of cultural philanthropy in times of crisis.

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The MacArthur Foundation headquarters in Chicago (image via J. Crocker on Wikimedia) (click to enlarge)

According to MacArthur’s website, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur began their philanthropy primarily giving in their two home cities, Palm Beach and Chicago, even before the couple created a formalized foundation in 1970. Since then, the foundation’s mission has been to give money tocreative people, effective institutions, and influential networks building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.” And it has done that to a considerable extent.

MacArthur argued over email that it has “provided more funds to Chicago ($1.1 Billion since 1979) than to any other place in the world […] with a special focus on supporting the city’s neighborhoods where economic disparity, racial inequality, violence, and inequitable access to opportunity persists.”

But the Black Star Project would have MacArthur now locally investing in entrepreneurship, jobs, after-school activities, tutoring, mentoring, violence reduction, counseling, parent development, and black empowerment programs. It believes MacArthur should step into a leadership role, uniting foundations around Chicago’s “most crucial issues,” which in a recent op-ed in Crain’s Chicago Business, the Black Star Project accused MacArthur of ignoring.

Phillip Jackson, author of the op-ed, is the former Chief of Staff for Chicago Public Schools and Chief For Education for the City of Chicago, and founded the Black Star Project in 1996. Analyzing the $56 million in grants given to Chicago organizations during 2015, he found that only $375,000 went to black organizations working to improve the black community. He calls this “modern day redlining.”

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(image courtesy The Black Star Project)

To come to this conclusion, Jackson used MacArthur’s own data on the grants it gives in Chicago and classified each recipient by which race community it serves based on where the organization is located. He also classified the organizations according to whether their leaders or board of directors were black or majority black.

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(image courtesy The Black Star Project)

However, determining what population is served by where an organization is headquartered does not yield consistently accurate results. For example, Jackson listed Young Chicago Authors as an organization serving whites. But theirs is a definitively mixed, if not majority non-white community — a cursory glance at the diverse crowds on their website shows this.

In a public response to Jackson’s op-ed, the MacArthur Foundation failed to address the point that its 2015 grantees lacked black-led organizations. But it did outline the causes it has funded to support Chicago’s African American and Latino Communities. The list is significant and broad, including criminal justice reform, after-school programs, and efforts to bolster housing markets in black and Latino neighborhoods. The foundation funded many small and mid-size arts organizations, including Chicago Dancemakers Forum, Chicago Film Archive, Chicago Independent Radio Project, Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, Chicago Public Art Group, and 220 others.

Still, Jackson’s point warrants consideration. Even if his methods were flawed, his argument reframes cultural philanthropy as an immediate moral issue. Chicago is in full-blown crisis mode with record violence levels and public schools considering not even opening in the fall. And MacArthur really does have the kind of resources that could help — since its founding, it’s awarded grants totaling about $5.7 billion.

Jackson said that MacArthur has a moral responsibility to step up to the plate: “Every citizen of Chicago should be involved right now to whatever extent they can in stopping the violence in Chicago.” That’s hard to argue with.

MacArthur said in an email that it has invited the Black Star Project to participate in “discussions with community and civic leaders and other donors about the most effective ways to further address the serious issues facing Chicago.” But Jackson said that MacArthur has “pretty much ignored” the Black Star Project.

MacArthur’s basic stance is that it’s already doing its part. The impossible question becomes: When are you helping enough?

Days after the 64-person Memorial Day weekend body count was tallied in Chicago, the MacArthur Foundation offered $100 million to anyone in the world who could solve any social problem. It’s understandable that Chicagoans would take this personally because, well, how many of Chicago’s burning social problems could they solve with that money?

What about giving Chicago’s 100 worst-off schools a million each? Why not give $100 million to Ceasefire, an organization with a proven track record for stopping gun violence? That could go a long way toward solving a huge social problem — you know, the one where Chicago’s children are murdering each other. Of course foundations can have their own funding priorities, but at what point does an emergency in their hometown merit special intervention?

In a sense, the racism charge is a red herring. Whether or not MacArthur’s grant-making practices constitute “modern day redlining” — and let’s not even talk about how foundations like MacArthur wouldn’t exist without capitalism’s extraordinary concentration of wealth or get into how to prioritize funding arts/culture or social justice — Black Star’s beef with MacArthur lays bare the murky ethics of cultural philanthropy.

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