Investing in Community Capacity

Ryan Priester, Program Officer, Chicago Commitment, discusses our commitment to partner with communities to elevate their voices in Chicago’s civic life.

We seek to partner with communities to realize a shared vision of a more equitable Chicago. University of Chicago professor Robert Chaskin refers to this as building community capacity, leveraging existing human, organizational, and social capital to solve collective problems and improve the well-being of a community. The Chicago Commitment embraces this approach to investing in Vital Communities, which requires us to recognize various expertise, support collaboration, and align resources.

As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded, we were called upon to act quickly. Historical inequities that have stymied Chicago’s progress were compounded by the pandemic. Data revealed that the levels of infection and death mirrored the segregation and inequitable distribution of resources in the city. So we joined more than 30 local funders to establish the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund to support nonprofits that provide community safety nets.

Meanwhile, a small group of donors focused on the needs of grassroots organizing in response to COVID-19 and the civil unrest after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The group distributed $300,000 among 30 organizations to increase the technical capacity required to shift work to virtual programming, such as outreach to community members.

Once our rapid response grantmaking ended, Jane Kimondo, Executive Director of the Crossroads Fund, challenged the group to do more. She made a compelling case that we should focus on long-term support for grassroots community organizing. We answered the call by developing the Chicago Racial Justice Pooled Fund to build and sustain movements for justice that center Black lives and address anti-Blackness. We supported the fund as part of the first set of grants made from our $125 million social bond proceeds.

The Chicago Racial Justice Pooled Fund engaged organizers and activists to provide input on the process. Their inclusion early-on ensures two key outcomes. First, the fund will operate in a way that aligns with the values of the organizations served. Second, it creates a sense of transparency and co-accountability between funders and organizers.

Chicago’s tradition of community organizing has profoundly influenced the direction of the city and the issues facing its communities. Grantmakers like the Crossroads and Woods funds, and the Conant Family, Field, Polk Bros., and Wieboldt foundations are deeply committed to supporting and developing grassroots community organizing efforts to build power in communities traditionally underrepresented in determining the direction of the Chicago region. These organizations and their leaders hold a wealth of knowledge and experience and serve as an example to other funders and civic leaders who want to support community capacity and power sharing.

In addition to collaborative work with peer funders, we invest in place-based initiatives and organizations that provide infrastructure support to neighborhoods. By collaborating with other experienced funders to support community organizing, we create more capacity for ourselves to invest in neighborhood organizations. We support pre-development of commercial corridors and industrial clusters, led by organizations with a track record of engaging the residents and stakeholders in community planning.

Greater Auburn Development Corporation and the Northwest Side Housing Center both exemplify the elevation of collective community voice and action towards shared visions of progress. The Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation works with nonprofit organizations, private and public sector institutions, and community members to attract new businesses and residents that will invest, shop, and raise families in the neighborhood. Northwest Side Housing Center identifies and responds to the needs of the Belmont Cragin community in Chicago by providing comprehensive community development in a neighborhood that is Chicago’s second-highest in positive COVID-19 test results.

We remain committed to elevating community voice in the civic life of Chicago through both collaborative initiatives and place-based investment. Through participating in these collaborative efforts, we expanded the range of organizations that we are able to support. As we continue to make investments in Chicago’s neighborhoods, we seek to expand community capacity and support community-driven initiatives.

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