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McKnight’s Moves to Drive Equity in Grantmaking

This article was originally published by PEAK Grantmaking, a member-led association of philanthropy professionals leading the way in advancing equitable, effective grantmaking practices. Together, we are transforming philanthropy. Learn more at and follow @PEAKgrantmaking on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Our communities deserve more than good intentions. And yet, across the philanthropy sector, aspirations are slow to turn into action. At the McKnight Foundation, we recognize PEAK’s leadership in advancing equitable, effective grantmaking practices across philanthropy. The Principles for Peak Grantmaking aim to move philanthropy from conversation to action, toward values-driven, equity-centered, practice-based change.

Equity in Action report coverOur new Equity in Action report documents examples of shifts we’ve made to back up our words with actions. In the past three years, we’ve made progress through policy changes and in how we move money, use our voice, make grants, convene others, and work with vendors. We hope by sharing our progress toward equity, in both big and small ways, that we will inspire others to do the same.

Here are a few examples of how we are now living each of the Principles for Peak grantmaking.

Tie Practices to Values. We know the importance of linking our grantmaking practices with our values when it comes to advancing our mission. In 2018, McKnight released the organization’s first diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statement to formally articulate our values and how they relate to our overall mission. A year later, the board made these values central to our operations when it named equity as one of the four core values in the McKnight Foundation’s strategic framework. We did this because we see equity as mission critical. Without it, we cannot achieve our program goals or have the impact we want to have. Equity is a value we challenge ourselves to uphold in our internal policies and practices, in our grantmaking, and in how we imagine the change we want to see. Each of McKnight’s grantmaking programs—whether they address climate change, support working artists, advance collaborative crop research, or fund innovative neuroscience research—are committed to embedding equity as a through-line in our grantmaking.

Equity is a value we challenge ourselves to uphold in our internal policies and practices, in our grantmaking, and in how we imagine the change we want to see.

Narrow the Power Gap. PEAK calls on grantmakers to narrow the power gap between grantmakers and grant applicants, and value equally the resources each brings to the partnership. McKnight has taken this approach in how we design and implement our grantmaking programs. For example, using an inclusive process, McKnight designed an entirely new program focused on building a more equitable and inclusive Minnesota. With a projected annual grantmaking budget of $32 million starting in 2022, Vibrant & Equitable Communities is one of the largest programs at McKnight, and is building relationships with new partners across the state of Minnesota. For more than a year, McKnight gathered input from more than 1,000 community stakeholders to shape the program, representing diverse people, places, sectors, and organizations in Minnesota and beyond. In making grant decisions, the program team is experimenting with more equitable methods—from offering extensive transparency on its process through webinars and FAQ pages to including voices from team members with diverse perspectives.

Additionally, McKnight’s board of directors in 2019 approved a new goal for our Midwest Climate & Energy program: to take bold action on the climate crisis by dramatically cutting carbon pollution in the Midwest by 2030. Accomplishing this requires an inclusive and multiracial democracy, one in which all people have the voice and power to bring about change to the issues affecting their lives and livelihoods. Recognizing this, the Climate & Energy program updated its strategies to include strengthening democratic participation as an essential approach. The program pursues this strategy in close partnership with McKnight’s Communities program, supporting communities in building powerful movements for change.

Drive Equity. PEAK calls on grantmakers to assess their systems and adjust them to minimize bias and support decisions that promote justice, inclusion, and equity. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, McKnight intentionally shifted its approach to arts funding, broadening the portfolio of organizations and projects that work to eliminate deep and persistent cultural, economic, and racial barriers. In one example, McKnight is the lead regional partner in the America’s Cultural Treasures initiative, which invests $12.6 million in significant regional cultural institutions led by Black, Indigenous, and people of color in Minnesota. In the first phase of funding, the Regional Cultural Treasures program honored organizations that have made a significant impact on our cultural landscape over decades, despite historic under-investment. In the second phase, the program will award grants to grow the future of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian American artists and cultural organizations in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and the 23 Native Nations that share the same geography.

Our program and grants teams have begun a broader redesign of McKnight’s grantmaking process to minimize the burden on grantees, ensuring that the application requirements are proportional to the amount requested.

Steward Responsively. Acting as a responsible steward means staying responsive to our partners’ needs in a changing world. We also know that equity in grantmaking is ultimately a matter of respect and trust, and how a funder designs its grantmaking processes and systems is one way to forge a true partnership. When COVID-19 hit, we worked quickly to provide flexibility to our grantee partners. We streamlined our application for emergency grants; implemented automatic extensions on grant reports or waived reporting requirements altogether; offered grant increases to reduce application steps; and invited grantees to speak to their program staff contact to change grantmaking terms if necessary, including modifying the grant purpose from program or project to general operating support.

Our program and grants teams have begun a broader redesign of McKnight’s grantmaking process to minimize the burden on grantees, ensuring that the application requirements are proportional to the amount requested.

Learn, Share, Evolve. As PEAK calls on all grantmakers to do, we are committed to designing practices that promote learning and sharing our knowledge sector-wide. Our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are works in progress. We still have more work to do and more to learn, and we’re proud of the progress we’ve made. We will continue learning, listening, reflecting, and speaking up to advance equity inside and outside McKnight. Most importantly, we will continue to act.

As more foundations make public commitments to racial equity, we hope all of us sharing our learning openly will help you think about what you can do at your organization to speed up progress and encourage mutual accountability. Together, we can combine our efforts to enact change and move larger systems. We see this work as our shared responsibility—and our shared opportunity—because what is at stake is nothing less than our shared fate.

November 2021

English (Canada)