POV: Community Building Through Grantmaking

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by Julia Klein

In the fall of 2014, then Development Director Sheila O’Donnell told me about the Giving Project, a new initiative that Crossroads Fund was launching. Being relatively new to Crossroads Fund I had been thinking a lot about my own social responsibility and I wanted to become more active in a way that felt authentic to me. The Giving Project sounded exactly like what I had been looking for as it offered not only the opportunity to learn more about groups from across Chicago who are working on issues of social justice, but to do so as a member of a diverse group of people.

The cohort that came together for the 2015 Giving Project was composed of participants from a wide range of backgrounds  —our 14-person group varied in terms of income, race, sexual orientation, age, and experience in social justice work. We began with training on racial justice and class analysis by participating in a series of day-long workshops in which we explored inequality as part of historically–rooted social systems. Our discussions were powered in large part because we shared our own personal experiences of race and class. I was a little nervous that these discussions would be uncomfortable, but the more we talked, the more I felt that the community cohered and our different identities and experiences created a rich, challenging, and productive environment for learning and growth. As a white woman it is not always easy for me to examine my privilege on multiple levels but the space that was created was safe and supportive for self and group reflection.

The workshops prepared us for the Giving Project’s primary task, becoming grantmakers for Crossroads Fund’s Seed Fund. This fund supports community-based organizations that are working for social change. Each of us was asked to make a “meaningful gift” based on our ability to give and to participate in fundraising within our networks. Whatever we raised would be used to award grants through the Seed Fund.

I think everyone approached the fundraising with some trepidation. A workshop facilitated by Crossroads Fund staff helped to alleviate some of that, as did our growing familiarity with the work of the applicants. Knowing that our efforts would help to determine the extent to which we would be able to move resources was a driving factor in increasing comfort.  Whether our requests resulted in a contribution or not, we were able to introduce our friends and family to the work of Crossroads Fund and the grantees.

For me, our responsibility in the grantmaking process didn’t fully sink in until we began to make site visits. After reviewing applications, we went in small groups to meet with the organizations to learn more about their work. For me, these visits were the most compelling part of the Giving Project. At least one Crossroads Fund staff member was involved in the visit, and they helped set a relaxed tone so that our discussions were just that—discussions, not interviews. In visit after visit I was inspired by the passion and commitment with which members of each group described their work. I felt lucky to be welcomed into so many communities and to learn firsthand about issues from the people most dedicated to working on them.

After all of the site visits were complete, the members of the Giving Project, Crossroads Fund staff, and members of Crossroads Fund Board met for a day-long session in which every applicant and site visit was thoroughly discussed. By the end of the day, we assembled a list of grantee recommendations to send to the Crossroads Fund Board. Through this process, my understanding of the breadth and depth of grassroots work being done in the Chicago area deepened even more.

The Giving Project helped me to connect with organizations that I likely wouldn’t have known about otherwise. Through these connections, the issues around which the groups were organizing became personal, and it became clearer to me where, why and how I wanted to become more involved. My experience was so impactful that I joined the 2016 Giving Project for another go-round. Rather than being a repeat of the year before, it was an entirely fresh experience because the participants changed and introduced a new set of perspectives. The Giving Project will continue to evolve as new cohorts form. I definitely grew through the experience, and I feel fortunate for the opportunity to have participated.

Julia Klein is an artist and publisher working in Chicago. For more information about the Giving Project visit: crossroadsfund.org/givingproject