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The Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund: Lessons in Collaboration Amid Crises

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This week marks the one-year anniversary of the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund (CCRF). The moment is not lost on us. To date, 5,056 Chicago residents have died due to COVID-19 and a stark 72% are Black or Latinx. The Chicago region continues to face unprecedented economic challenges due to the devastation of the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism, particularly in Black and Latinx communities. We have so much to do in order to build our communities back better.

And yet, it is important that we take a moment to reflect on the collective impact of the CCRF which united funds raised by Chicago’s philanthropies, corporations, and individuals to be disbursed to nonprofit organizations amid the public health crisis. Together, more than 6,000 donors raised $35 million for the region. The Response Fund has been the single largest relief effort for both United Way of Metro Chicago and The Chicago Community Trust, and it was one of the largest in the country. Over the past year, we distributed grants to over 400 organizations providing emergency services to people most impacted by COVID-19. By centering equity and through thoughtful collaboration, communities have been mobilized to respond to their highest priorities.

It’s staggering to look back on those first few days of standing up the Response Fund. Each passing day in March of last year, the concerns about the immediate impacts of COVID-19, particularly for individuals at higher risk of contracting the virus, were growing. As funders of human services, we were hearing first-hand accounts of challenges that our community-based partners were facing: adjusting the delivery of services, increased expenses for PPE and cleaning supplies, rapid decreases in volunteers, and cancelling revenue generating events. Simultaneously, donors were asking how they could help with the looming crisis.

A few days prior to announcing that both our organizations would be shifting to remote work, staff from United Way and the Trust began to map out immediate steps in co-creating a Response Fund. Our respective leadership, Sean Garrett and Helene Gayle, both saw the value in leveraging the strengths, resources, and relationships of our two long-standing organizations for a large-scale relief effort, even though we had not closely partnered on a major initiative together.

We set forth the CCRF priorities over a weekend where more unknowns rather than certainties existed. While rumors swirled, the Illinois “Stay at Home” order would not be issued for another week. We knew the virus was quickly spreading, and yet we had no sense of how the coming months would affect not only people’s health but also their livelihoods. We did not have disaggregated data on the early economic and health impacts of COVID-19 to drive our strategic decisions. We did not know how much CCRF might raise despite the mounting needs. We did not know how we would coordinate with our public sector partners. We did not know how long we’d be working from home.

Despite the uncertainties, we were unwavering with our guiding principles. First and foremost, we wanted to move quickly, as the effects of COVID-19 were immediately felt in our community. We were proud to use our organizational expertise to make our first grants a mere five days after the CCRF officially launched. Initially, the CCRF would provide grants for essential services and also allow for “bold” interventions such as direct cash assistance. We targeted communities and populations in need of added supports due to inequities borne out of systemic racism—and also bolstered the enduring organizations that provided quality services with broad reach and established infrastructure. We rapidly shifted to respond to evolving, emergent needs including immediate support due to the civil unrest after the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

We quickly established trust with each other and our partners—and we committed to doing the best based on the information available with room for adjustments rather than be stymied by perfection. We worked closely with community partners, ensuring that their voices guided each successive round of grants. As organizations rooted in neighborhoods, they were best positioned to assess and address unprecedented challenges. We trusted their expertise and insight, which gave us confidence that we could make impactful grants to meet the greatest needs. The grant process was designed to be rapid and not be overly burdensome; funding would support general operations to allow flexibility.

Over the course of the Response Fund, we made investments in promising initiatives that begin to build longer term infrastructure advancing equity such as increasing access to broadband, laying the groundwork for a 211 system, promoting COVID-19 vaccines for hard-to-reach populations, supporting small business recovery, and investing in innovative education solutions.

The Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund exemplifies the best of Chicago. To see individuals and institutions that consistently respond to the call to make Chicago a more thriving region—either as donors making contributions, frontline workers providing essential services, or policy makers pushing systemic reforms – was inspiring.

We are COVID-fatigued and in need of restoration—and we also recognize the privilege to have served the Chicago region during these historic times. We understand that we cannot ‘recover from COVID-19’ without dismantling systemic racism. There is hard work ahead, but we are filled with hope that the spirit of collaboration that sustained us will persist to make our region more resilient. The CCRF was a monumental team effort, and we look forward to applying the lessons learned over the past year toward more transformative work before us.