Community-Based Sustainable Development

Note: This grant program is not currently accepting proposals. This is a sample RFP from the most recent grant cycle, provided for your information. If this RFP opens again in future, some changes may be made, so you will always want to review the complete details carefully before submitting any proposal.



Sustainable communities are the building blocks of a sustainable region. Local government charts the course on the form and function of a community, from where residents live to how they move around and earn a living. Local authority over planning, zoning and permitting, and local jurisdiction over roads, schools, parks, recreation and much else influences the quality of the built and natural environments. Consequently, the prosperity of a region is determined in large part by the functionality of its individual communities.

Currently, many places in the Chicago region function amidst unwieldy forces such as population decline and disinvestment. Recent census data for the seven-county Chicago region attests to the continuation of an inefficient development pattern that defined much of late 20th-century America: the “hollowing out” of many core areas around the region and growth along suburban edges. De-populated communities now struggle to provide basic services to residents.

Historically, even new growth in areas with strong markets tended to be poorly planned, uncoordinated or inefficient. Bigger lots with bigger buildings meant more impervious surface to displace stormwater, more solid waste in need of a landfill, and less farmland for human sustenance. For a long time federal and state policy favored investment in and around highways over public transportation, which was often centralized in neighborhoods and town centers. Local policy institutionalized this trend. For most communities, it remains standard practice to isolate residential areas from the essentials for daily living, such as job centers, commercial and retail districts, healthcare, schools and entertainment. The average household in the Chicago region now travels approximately 47 miles per day by automobile. Transportation mobility and a seemingly endless supply of energy have enabled newly developed land to outpace regional population growth disproportionately.

According to the Chicago Climate Action Plan, 70 percent of Chicago’s carbon emissions come from electricity and natural gas use for buildings. When accounting for transportation, the number rises to 91 percent; just nine percent of total emissions come from other sources. Predictably, transportation emissions are higher in the car-dependent collar counties at 30 percent; building emissions there are 61 percent.


Problem Statement

With over 200,000 residents lost since 2000, the City of Chicago has tallied its lowest population in 90 years. Conversely, the outermost collar counties logged the highest growth numbers in the state (as an example, the population of largely exurban Kendall County increased more than 100 percent). Juxtaposed against a modest 5.6 percent regional population increase, one can appreciate that vast amounts of land and infrastructure in developed areas are obsolete, underutilized or outright abandoned. According to most estimates, Cook County alone has tens of thousands of vacant properties.

The effects of this outward migration of people and resources are hardest-felt in the region’s low-income areas, where decades-long government and market failures have contributed to a blighted landscape. In some Chicago neighborhoods, population loss tops 70% from the 1950s peak era. These communities grapple with foreclosure, food deserts and the disappearance of stabilizing anchor institutions.

While the region’s 284 municipalities have the development authority to create more sustainable places, many local leaders lack the understanding, conviction or resources for substantive action. The well-researched inefficiency of this region’s municipal systems compromises quality of life for residents, the integrity of the environment, and the ability of communities to compete for jobs and resources.

Far too many places in and around Chicago still settle for antiquated policy or have no capacity or strategic direction whatsoever to attract and guide investment or remain resilient to economic and social shifting. Without 284 sustainable communities, the region as a whole could become less competitive in the global marketplace.


Trust Support for Community-Based Sustainable Development

The Trust supports community-based initiatives that pursue these three interrelated outcomes of sustainable development:

  • A natural environment of clean air, water and land
  • An accessible, high-quality built environment of affordable housing, multi-modal transportation networks and full-service communities
  • Locally viable economies that benefit all residents

In recent years, the Trust has supported the Bronzeville Retail Initiative, which is helping to restore the once-vibrant retail sector of Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. The initiative provides technical assistance to prospective commercial interests along primary arterials, helps with corridor beautification, and advocates for land use policy that aligns with the neighborhood’s interest in transit and mixed-use development.

The Trust has also supported The 606, an innovative and nationally recognized 2.7-mile urban park and trail development atop the elevated and abandoned Canadian Pacific Railway on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Supported by The Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust, The 606 will deliver much needed green space, recreation and bike paths to its four land-locked host communities.

Further south, the City of Blue Island is using Trust funding to implement three strategies outlined in the City of Blue Island Comprehensive Plan that will improve transportation mobility and economic vibrancy in the city’s downtown. Completed in May 2012, the plan outlines Blue Island’s shared vision for sustainable growth for the next 15 – 20 years and includes detailed implementation actions to help achieve that vision.

The Village of Park Forest leveraged its continued support from the Trust by implementing Growing Green, the official long-range sustainability plan for the community. Designed with the assistance of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s Local Technical Assistance program, which also receives funding from the Trust, Growing Green creates the policy framework to bring multimodal transportation to the community, pursue the goal of purchasing 100% of the community’s electricity from renewable sources, and engage students and residents in conservation practices such as community gardening. In September 2013, the Village of Park Forest and Growing Green won the Illinois Chapter of the American Planning Association’s award in the municipal sustainability category.


Outcomes Sought

The Chicago Community Trust seeks up to ten communities to serve as regional models of community-based sustainable development. Priority applicants will pursue these priority local outcomes within communities and neighborhoods:

  • High-functioning places: Policies, development provisions, design guidelines, technology innovations, programs and strategies that promote a cleaner, more efficient and more connected built environment.
  • Informed and engaged stakeholders: Initiatives that engage and educate diverse local stakeholders, allowing for inclusive, transparent planning and development processes.
  • Impactful programs: Local program implementation that reflects the sustainable development goals of the community, municipality and region.

Additional outcomes:

  • Increase knowledge, conviction and political will among residents, businesses and political interests about the benefits of sustainable development in the community
  • Build capacity for sustainable development to occur seamlessly in the community through the removal of government, market or cultural barriers
  • Demonstrate commitment and leadership to refine and implement important sustainable development source materials such as a local long-range comprehensive plan and, for Chicago-focused projects, the Chicago Climate Action Plan and Sustainable Chicago 2015. All projects must demonstrate alignment with the GO TO 2040 regional comprehensive plan
  • Replicable across communities
  • Track multiple success indicators. Projects must show improvements in at least six of the following indicators:

Built Environment

  • Number of dwelling units within one-half mile of a transit stop (metric: dwelling units/acre)
  • Number of jobs within one-half mile of a transit stop (metric: jobs/acre )
  • Number of households spending less than 45% of household income on housing and transportation combined (metric: households as a percentage of the community)
  • Acres of vacant and underutilized land repurposed with compact, mixed-use or transit-oriented development (metric: number of acres)
  • Reduction in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) through an increase in land use density around transit stations and/or an increase in alternative transportation modes such as walking, bicycling, and transit (two metrics: annual VMT/household; number of metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent)
  • Number of dwelling units with increased access and proximity to community facilities, services, and infrastructure (e.g., public buildings, commercial/retail districts, hospitals) (metric: dwelling units/acre)
  • Number of dwelling units within one-half mile of a public space or park (metric: dwelling units/acre)

Climate and Energy

  • Number of retrofitted/constructed residential and non-residential structures with energy and/or water efficiency improvements (two metrics: square feet of structures; number of metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent)
  • Energy reduction achieved through energy conservation efforts (two metrics: number of MMBTUs; number of metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent)
  • Water reduction achieved through water conservation efforts (metric: gallons/day)
  • Reduction in the amount of solid waste generated within the community that is disposed of via landfill or incinerator (metric: number of metric tonnes)

Natural Systems

  • Acres of parks/open space per resident (metric: acres per 1,000 residents)
  • Amount of surface area with green infrastructure technology or natural features (metric: number of acres or square feet)

These indicators were selected, in part, from the STAR Communities Rating System.

In 2014, The Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust will launch a regional food systems initiative. At this time, the community-based sustainable development RFP will not accept food systems proposals, which includes urban agriculture.

With special exceptions, proposals for the creation of long-range municipal comprehensive plans, including sustainability plans, will not be accepted. The community-based sustainable development RFP is for the implementation of projects and programs recommended by existing plans. Communities interested in long-range comprehensive planning are advised to visit CMAP’s Local Technical Assistance program.


Eligible Applicants

  • Nonprofit organizations with evidence of tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code or those using a 501(c)(3) fiscal agent
  • Local government entities in Cook County
  • Organizations located within and/or primarily serving residents of Cook County, except for regional, statewide or national organizations with projects that may benefit Cook County residents
  • Organizations with a commitment to diversity and inclusion for their governance, staffing, and populations served; and explicit adherence to non-discriminatory practices in the hiring of staff or in providing services on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, national origin or disability



Interested organizations must complete an online application. The Trust designed the application to collect information about the applicant’s organization and project. The application includes questions similar to the following:

  • Describe the project and how it supports the implementation of a municipal long-range comprehensive plan (land use plans, transportation plans, sustainability plans, neighborhood plans, economic development plans and others may be used)
  • For projects in Chicago, also describe the project and how it supports the implementation of GO TO 2040, the Chicago Climate Action Plan and Sustainable Chicago 2015.
  • Describe the project and how it supports the implementation of the GO TO 2040 regional comprehensive plan.
  • Identify the long- and short-term goals for the project.
  • Describe the activities that will help reach project goals.
  • Provide a workplan and timetable for the project.
  • Project the long-term impact of your project with at least six indicators (see Outcomes Sought)
  • State the overall long-term impact of the project, and identify intermediary outcomes and measures to track progress.
  • Describe how your organization will evaluate the project.


Evaluation Criteria

Incomplete proposals will not be considered. Grant proposals will be evaluated, on a competitive basis, using the following criteria:

Project criteria

  • Ability of the project to deliver the RFP’s primary outcomes: high-functioning places, informed and engaged stakeholders and impactful programs (see Outcomes Sought)
  • Ability of the project to implement important sustainable development source materials such as the local long-range comprehensive plan and, for projects in Chicago, the Chicago Climate Action Plan and Sustainable Chicago 2015.
  • Ability of the project to demonstrate alignment with the GO TO 2040 regional comprehensive plan.
  • Clarity of project, including description, goals, activities, workplan, timetable, indicators, impact, outcomes, measures and evaluation
  • Realistic success indicators (see Outcomes Sought)
  • Alignment of project activities to achieve goals and outcomes
  • Achievable timetable that corresponds to project activities
  • Likelihood of success

Organizational criteria

  • Organizational capacity to implement the project, including leadership, staffing, business operations and fiscal management
  • Experience with the project area being proposed by the applicant, or potential to achieve needed expertise with the project area
  • Demonstrated knowledge of sustainable development, including best practices and trends
  • Ability to contribute new knowledge to the field
  • Ability to leverage financial, human and technical resources leading to greater impact
  • Opportunities to scale or expand proven models while maintaining local relevance, or test new approaches that, if successful, can be grown and replicated
  • Opportunities for collaborative work and bringing public and private partners together with nonprofit organizations


*Special note on diversity and inclusion

The Trust requires all applicants to either adopt the Trust's Diversity Statement or have a similar policy adopted by their boards. The Trust believes that the diversity of our community is a fundamental strength of our region. Our mission to improve the quality of life for the residents of our region is best fulfilled when we embrace diversity as a value and a practice. We define diversity to include, but not limited to, age, disability status, economic circumstance, ethnicity, gender, race, religion and sexual orientation.

Additionally, the Trust asks that applicants provide demographic data on board and staff as well as clients/beneficiaries of the projects. The Trust believes that the board and staff composition of grantees should reflect the diversity and demographics of the clients/community being served, and include diversity among its leadership at the board and senior staff levels to ensure the diverse perspectives needed at the decision-making levels. For this reason, the Trust does take into consideration the demographic make-up of the board, staff and clients of a grant applicant as an important proposal evaluation criterion.


Total Awards

The Trust will make five to 10 grants under this RFP. Grant amounts will range from $30,000 to $75,000. Successful applicants will receive grants for one year. Please think carefully about all the aspects of the project that require support. Prioritize what you need and budget for those items. Budget requests will be closely analyzed and applicants should include a budget narrative that makes clear the necessity of the project's specific line items.


Application Process

Interested applicants will complete an online proposal.
Resources to help shape your proposal:
Slide presentation from the December Q & A session (PDF format, does not require PowerPoint)
Follow-up phone consultations and in-person meetings will be available with community foundation staff as time permits.
Review and selection
Applicants may receive a site visit, telephone call or other communication from the Trust staff as part of the proposal review process.
The Trust's Executive Committee (board of directors) will make the final grant decision.
Evaluation, Monitoring and Learning Activities
Grant recipients will be expected to meet the Trust's requirements for the submission of financial and narrative reports, including an interim progress report and final report.
In an effort to further the overall program goals of the RFP, inform future RFPs related to this topic and contribute to larger field-building objectives, grant recipients may be asked to participate in periodic meetings to share information on project activities and best practices as well as participate in research-based evaluations.


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