Open Call for Ideas: A Q & A

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In February, the Trust kicked off a novel approach to grant making: a call for potential grant recipients to tell us what neighborhood investments we should fund. We sat down with the Trust’s Catalyzing Neighborhood Investments team—Senior Director of Community Impact Michael Davidson, Program Manager Sandra Aponte, and Impact Coordinator Cora Marquez—to learn more about the Open Call for Ideas.

Q: What is The Chicago Community Trust Open Call for Ideas?

Michael Davidson: The Open Call is our invitation to anybody that’s working on community investment to submit an idea at any time. You don’t need to wait for an LOI, RFP or personal invitation. You don’t even need to form a relationship with someone at the Trust. It’s an invitation door that’s always open.

Q: How does the Open Call process work?

MD: It was designed for simplicity. If you have an idea that aligns with the Neighborhood Investment strategy – doing a plan, investing in catalytic assets, financing development, or policy that helps the investment process – just go to the website and tell us about it in a few simple paragraphs. It’s important to let folks know we’re not asking for full proposals. You shouldn’t have to go through a lengthy process to say: “Hey, we’ve got an idea you should consider!” That idea just needs an easier way to be heard, and if it aligns strongly with the Neighborhood Investment strategy, we’ll start a conversation about it. Eventually, we may invite a full proposal. But first and foremost it’s about creating an efficient, accessible way for good ideas to come to us.

Cora Marquez: Logistically, once you submit, you’ll receive an email from me within three business days, just letting you know that we’ve seen it, we’re going to review it, and we’ll get back to you shortly. I think another fun thing is that organizations could technically apply multiple times. They can solve as many challenges as they want. And, they can think outside of the formal RFP box.

Submit an Open Call Idea: It’s as easy as 1-2-3

  1. Review the Catalyzing Neighborhood Investment strategy, Open Call for Ideas, and Submitting an Idea webpages.
  2. Login into GrantCentral or Create an Account. For technical questions about your GrantCentral application, please contact our grants management staff at
  3. Fill out the short application then submit!

You will receive a confirmation email from within 72 hours of submission. For additional questions, check out the Open Call FAQ.


Q: Can you give some examples of the kind of ideas you’re hoping to receive?

MD: Again, the Open Call is set up to attract ideas across four key parts of the Neighborhood Investment strategy: plans, assets, finance and policy. We encourage folks to read more about these essential parts of the investment ecosystem on strategy’s webpages. I think the ideas will run the gamut – from developing around a transit station to repurposing a vacant school to pushing a policy that makes it easier for neighborhood investment to happen in places ignored by the market. But the idea should be secondary to what it will catalyze. Behind the idea should be some type of collaboration that breaks down historical siloes – geographic, institutional, sectoral, programmatic, etc. And to what extent can these collaborations, if patiently supported, attract inclusive financial capital to under-invested markets?

Sandra Aponte: One way to think about it is that we know that the Chicago region has a number of different neighborhood plans. We are aware that while some funding goes to planning, it might not go to the implementation of plans. This [the Open Call] is an opportunity to think through what aspects of a community plan have not come to fruition. Then think about how that aligns with the Neighborhood Investment strategy and approach us with that idea.

Q: Because the Neighborhood Investment strategy is a part of our broader strategic focus to close the racial and ethnic wealth gap, is the idea required to relate to that in some way?

MD: Oh, you bet. First of all, the communities that will receive Neighborhood Investment support will be majority Black and Latinx. But also, the work we’re doing is both complementary to and coordinated with the Trust’s two other wealth gap strategies: Creating Household Wealth and Building Collective Power. While the Household Wealth work focuses on a discrete set of evidence-based wealth creation levers, the Neighborhood Investment and Collective Power strategies focus on the broader enabling environment. This matters. Think about something like public transportation or corridor revitalization. While they’re not happening within the household, they have implications on the household’s ability to create wealth. The correlation between housing values and all the things that contribute to neighborhood prosperity is irrefutable. You can’t separate the two.

Q: This is a new approach to grant making at the Trust. What inspired the innovation?

SA: I think it was inspired by the foundation being somewhat closed for a number of years in terms of grant opportunities. It’s that pendulum of “by invitation” to saying, “We basically are open,” which is something we were hearing from community members that were engaged during the strategic planning process, who were asking for the foundation to be more accessible.

In addition, while it’s an opportunity for organizations to get involved with the foundation in a different way, it’s also a way that for our foundation staff to have a better idea of what the landscape looks like.

MD: I totally agree with Sandra. I think to her first point; it makes the Trust more accessible. I would argue that a community foundation is held to a different standard than our private foundation colleagues. To use a tangible example, a few years ago the Trust made its conference rooms available to partners to host meetings. On any given day, those rooms are filled with people doing work that isn’t necessarily connected to a Trust grant. We also regularly host conversations with thought leaders in our offices. They’re a terrific success because we’ve invited our partners to participate. Being open and accessible to new ideas through the Open Call is simply a different way to partner.

And with regard to Sandra’s comment about understanding the landscape of neighborhood investment, I agree with it entirely. Neighborhood investment is an ecosystem. It’s not just planning, or asset-based development, or finance, or policy. It’s all of those things and a whole lot more. The Neighborhood Investment team is small. And we can’t be everywhere at once. So the Open Call gives us an efficient way to source ideas from this complex, ever-changing ecosystem. It’s also a powerful acknowledgment that the ideas should come from the community and not the other way around.

CM: I also think it’s exciting because this is an opportunity for organizations who might be intimidated by the Trust or feel like they didn’t fit into certain RFPs that were released. This is a light lift on their end because it’s just a short form of projects, and it gets their organization and their name circulating within the Trust, which could have felt like a barrier previously.

Q: This is very different than the Trust saying, “This is where we want to put our money based on what we think,” right?

MD: It is a shift. Again, it’s about looking to the community for solutions rather than creating them for the community from the ivory tower of philanthropy. Having said that, folks should know that the Open Call isn’t open to anything. Based on expert analysis, a lot of research and years in the field, we make it clear we’re interested in ideas only within and across those four areas. We’re also pragmatists. Open Call ideas need to pair with other place-based opportunities in order to be considered. I’m thinking about Invest South/West communities and Opportunity Zones as timely examples. Neighborhood Investment is a systems strategy designed for integration and collaboration in almost every sense. We cannot afford to spend limited resources on one-off, disconnected projects. Open call ideas must leverage something, stack with something, optimize something, or be the springboard for something.

SA: This is consistent with the approach that we took on through the strategic planning process of not coming to the community already with the idea of the specifics of what we’re going to fund. Even that was a shift of how we interacted with different stakeholders. There were some parameters that guided where we wanted to land in the strategy, but it was open enough that it allows for inputs and the further development of an idea.

Q: Do you feel like the Open Call will help the Trust engage with new partners?

MD: Yes, without a doubt. When you read about the Open Call on the website, we use the words “new voices.” Because there’s a low barrier to entry we hope new voices emerge. The Neighborhood Investment strategy strongly prioritizes collaboration. In my experience, collaboration invariably brings in new voices.

Also, keep in mind, the strategy strongly promotes tri-sector solutions. Substantive and lasting neighborhood investment can’t happen with philanthropic and government dollars alone. We’re already at the table. We need private capital to join us in recognizing the opportunity in under-invested communities, and then to invest without displacing the people who have fought for years to be recognized. So we hope many of the new voices represent the interests of private capital.

Q: In closing, will you summarize how the Open Call advances the priorities of the Catalyzing Neighborhood Investment strategy?

MD: Ahh… the elevator pitch. Here goes: the Open Call is an efficient way for the Trust to source community ideas across key areas of the neighborhood investment ecosystem – planning, asset-based development, finance innovation and policy solutions. It gives us the flexibility to pull any of these ecosystem levers when needed, and provides a vantage point to spot trends and patterns that we may need to go deeper on later.