How Small Arts Nonprofits Lead Neighborhoods Forward

Small #arts nonprofits support hyperlocal economies, respond to neighborhood needs + champion a vision for their communities’ future, finds an evaluation of SMART Growth grant recipients across 3 #Chicago neighborhoods Tweet This

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Across the city of Chicago, small arts and culture organizations serve as vital neighborhood assets—responding to local needs ranging far beyond the arts.

That’s according to an evaluation of the SMART Growth grant program, a signature initiative of the Trust designed to help cultural organizations achieve balanced growth that ensures their sustainability and resilience.

Three cohorts of SMART Growth grant recipients, totaling 100 organizations, have completed the multi-year program since its launch in 2006. A fourth class of 29 organizations was announced in June 2018.

The goal of the SMART Growth 2018 Community Engagement and Impact Report was to understand how their programs benefit the community. This evaluation is the first to explore and benchmark the communities in which the grant recipients work, using data sources like Chicago Neighborhoods 2015, Chicago Public Schools, the City of Chicago Census Data Hardship Index, DataArts, Healthy Chicago 2.0 and more.

The evaluation focused on three areas of the city that are home to multiple SMART Growth grant recipients: South Shore/South Chicago, with six organizations; Belmont-Cragin/Hermosa, with five organizations; and Albany Park, with four.

Bar chart showing Healthy Chicago 2.0 Report data


These three communities share several challenges that negatively impact their Hardship Index rankings: per capita income levels below the city average of $28,202; childhood obesity rates several points higher than the city average of 19%; more residents above the age of 25 without a high school diploma than the city average of 19.5%.

The evaluation revealed how SMART Growth’s investment in community organizations is increasing access to the arts, contributing to local economies in under-resourced sections of the city and improving the quality of life for community members.


Albany Park

Known as Chicago’s most ethnically diverse neighborhood, this north side neighborhood has the highest socioeconomic, health and child opportunity rankings of the three communities studied. However, nearly 30% of residents do not have health insurance, significantly higher than the city average of 18.7%, and childhood obesity is 26%, compared to the Chicago average of 19%.

The community is home to four SMART Growth grant recipients, which represent 50% of the nonprofit cultural assets within the community. Two of the organizations offer youth-focused educational and achievement programs, while two focus on serving the adult members of the urban community.

Albany Park’s SMART Growth organizations reported the largest percentage (67%) of weekly participation by the local community in their programs. Beyond the core mission of arts programming, educational programs are the most common service they provide.

Economically, the Albany Park organizations are most reliant on contributions (86%), rather than income earned, and they spend the most annually—$2.5 million. On average, 25% of participants at Albany Park performances participated or attended for free.


Belmont Cragin/Hermosa

Residents living in the Belmont-Cragin/Hermosa area enjoy many community assets including schools, churches, health care providers and community-based nonprofits. Life expectancy and infant mortality rate here are both more favorable than the city average.

However, the Hardship Index in Belmont-Cragin/Hermosa is the highest of the three communities studied; per capita income here is the lowest; and childhood obesity is the highest.

An artist uses a craft knife to construct a cardboard sculpture
100 cultural organizations are alumni of SMART Growth; 29 additional nonprofits, like Bridgeport’s Project Onward, began the multiyear program in summer 2018.


The neighborhood is home to a large and diverse Latino community. Demographically, more than one-third of the area’s population is under the age of 19. Preservation of Latino cultural heritage and language is a common thread among 60% of the organizations, and 100% offer educational and/or youth development programming to young people in the community.

Five SMART Growth grant recipients are located in Belmont Cragin/Hermosa, representing 63% of the nonprofit cultural assets within the community.

SMART Growth organizations show a broad diversity of involvement, focus and outreach within this neighborhood. They report providing community leadership in human services (25%), youth development (25%) and cultural planning (50%); beyond the core mission of arts programming, their programming includes sports/recreation (11%) health (11%), safety (11%), social services (11%) and disaster relief services (11%).

On average, 81% of participation in performances is free of charge—more than three times the rate in Albany Park.


South Shore/South Chicago

Of the three communities studied, South Shore/South Chicago faces the most significant socioeconomic, health and child opportunity challenges. Although the Hardship Index ratings for these two communities average out to 65, South Chicago’s individual rating of 75 is the highest of the three areas studied. Average life expectancy is the lowest—at 70, it’s eight years shorter than the city average—and infant mortality is the highest by a wide margin.

It is also a community with rich, but declining, architectural assets and a diminishing population. Accordingly, the six SMART Growth grant recipients located here—representing 55% of the total nonprofit cultural assets within the community—include 33% focused on cultural and historic preservation, 83% with significant programming focused on youth development and 33% that have youth safety at their core purpose.

Organizations from South Shore/South Chicago reported the largest share of daily participation in their programs by local residents, at 75%.

Economically, 82% of their revenue comes from contributed sources rather than earned income. An average of 93% of participants—the highest among all three communities studied—attended programs or performances free of charge.

Bar chart showing Ways the Local Community Engages


Beyond the unique ways in which each neighborhood’s organizations adapt to local concerns and opportunities, the evaluation found four key traits uniting the SMART Growth alumni organizations:

  • SMART Growth grant recipients are key neighborhood assets. These arts organizations represent between 50% and 65% of the nonprofit cultural assets in their respective areas. They engage regularly and directly with their communities, in ways that are relevant and meaningful to the local residents.
  • Grant recipients’ business models reveal a deep commitment to neighborhood service. While a typical performing arts ensemble strives for a 50/50 ratio between contributed and earned revenue, SMART Growth organizations share a business model resembling that of a social service nonprofit, with a high contributed-to-earned revenue ratio of over 70%–revenue which is paid forward in the form of free and/or subsidized programming, reflecting their essential commitment to serving community needs.
  • Community need drives organization’s community engagement. In each community studied, SMART Growth organizations demonstrated genuine responsiveness: developing programming to fill gaps in service, offer creative approaches to meeting local needs and deepen their relationship to the community.
  • SMART Growth organizations have a community-centric vision for the future. Grant recipients express a vision for their communities that further reflects the breadth and depth of engagement with the local residents and their evolving needs—from Belmont-Cragin/Hermosa, where organizations cite the need for greater investment in youth employment, and policy advancements in historic preservation, economic development and affordable housing; to South Shore/South Chicago, where grant recipients express a vision for increased investment in youth employment opportunities and arts-in-education programs, as well as policy advancements in community safety.

You can read and download the complete evaluation here.