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Last year, The Chicago Community Trust asked the Young Leaders Fund (YLF), one of the Trust’s affinity funds, to identify and support 10 past grant recipients that could use a technological boost during the pandemic. Celebrating 25 years of philanthropic service in 2020, YLF answered the call.

In just a couple of months, YLF disbursed $30,000 in capacity-building grants, ranging from $1,200 to $3,000, to 11 grassroots organizations to help address and bridge technological infrastructure gaps. Grant recipients could use the money to buy a full Zoom subscription or fundraising software, or to make any other investment in technology that would help them realize their mission.

“They could do whatever they wanted to do to keep the lights on and get them through what’s going on right now,” says YLF co-chair Adam Seidenberg.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed an alarming digital divide in Chicago and elsewhere — disparities in access to computers and reliable high-speed Internet and software – a gap often based in economic inequities that are particular to Black and Latinx communities. The pandemic forced individuals, companies, and organizations to take their operations online, a transition many organizations could not manage.

“We had heard from many nonprofits, especially smaller ones deep-rooted in their communities, that they didn’t have the type of technology many of us take for granted,” says Daniel Ash, associate vice president of community impact at the Trust, who oversees management of the Trust’s affinity funds.

Technology is a critical building block for any healthy organization in the 21st century, according to YLF co-chair Melanie Wang, who led efforts for the special grant cycle. But she noted that cash-strapped nonprofits, especially those serving communities of color, often put whatever funds available to them into services or community offerings, stinting on important technology investments.

“They needed the opportunity to invest in themselves while pivoting through very tough times,” Wang says of the organizations that applied for the grant.

During a normal grant cycle, YLF awards 10 to 12 grants of $3,000 to $5,000 each to promising nonprofits working in three areas: arts and culture, child development and education, and community and economic development. YLF was coming off its regular grant cycle for 2020 when it was asked to take on the capacity-building grant making.

The additional grant cycle meant extra work for YLF volunteers, many of whom are up-and-coming professionals. Seidenberg and Tomás de’ Medici, the senior YLF co-chair at the time, reached out to assemble a team that included former members. Seidenberg noted that YLF volunteers were eager to step up to the challenge and excited to see how impactful the technology grants could be.

During regular YLF grant cycles, organizations can apply only once for a YLF grant, but these special awards went to past grant recipients. Among the recipient selected for a capacity-building grant were: the Rohingya Culture Center in West Rogers Park, which plans to put citizenship and English as a Second Language classes online; Chicago Volunteer Doulas, so that it can train more doulas of color online and connect them virtually with clients; and Red Clay Dance Company, an Afro-contemporary dance organization based in Woodlawn, that will improve digital tracking of its community engagement to strengthen its programs and strategize for the future.

De’Medici, a second-generation YLF member, said he was thrilled to see how YLF’s work could fit into the Trust’s larger efforts to create a more equitable Chicago region. He added, “With the capacity-building grants, we were able to focus in on both the digital divide and the racial and ethnic wealth gap—and put those in the context of COVID.”