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Community-based organizations are integral to closing the region’s racial and ethnic wealth gap: They work with residents and businesses on community plans, provide supports to neighborhood entrepreneurs, quarterback real estate development projects, and bring their community’s unique voice to collaborative tables across the city. As part of the Trust’s Catalyzing Neighborhood Investment strategy, the new Flexible Funding Program is providing 14 community investment organizations with general operating support, enabling them to steward their communities through these uncertain times while continuing to achieve their neighborhoods’ visions.

“In the midst of the pandemic, social unrest, and economic crisis, these organizations have been building the resiliency of their communities,” said Sandra Aponte, Trust program manager, who leads the Flexible Funding Program. “Even as they continue to go to incredible lengths to attend to the pressing needs of local residents and business owners, they are also advancing strategic neighborhood investments that will improve local prosperity over the long term.”

Craig Chico, president of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, said that the unencumbered funding has been critical not only to maintain but also expand his organization’s services in these unprecedented times.

“The value of each dollar that comes with operational freedoms is worth 100 times that to us,” said Chico. “We lost an entire fundraising season last year, but with the flexible funding from the Trust we were able to keep all of our employees and continue to advance our big picture goals. You don’t get to those goals in an organization like ours without that type of operational support.”

One of the Council’s goals is to address neighborhood instability by purchasing abandoned residential properties, rehabilitating them, and making them available for purchase at an affordable price to local would-be homeowners. This effort is part of the City of Chicago’s Invest South/West initiative, in partnership with Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, which serves people in Back of the Yards who are affected by violence and the criminal justice system.

“In our community, we have too many abandoned homes and vacant lots, yet there are a number of people who have been shut out of housing opportunities,” said Chico. “We are looking to purchase a number of properties, rehab them with upfront capital from investment partners as well as the sweat equity of would-be homebuyers, and also help the homebuyers prepare for homeownership with down payment assistance and financial education.”

Creative, stabilizing community investments are the bread and butter of organizations like Chico’s. Yet during the past year, community-based development organizations have  stretched to take on new roles and responsibilities in response to extraordinary community needs. For example, in early June when civil uprisings occurred across the city and nation, Felicia Slaton-Young, executive director of the Greater Englewood Chamber of Commerce, recalls receiving more than 130 calls in a single day from business members whose properties were affected.

“A business cannot even operate if it has no doors or windows,” said Slaton-Young. “Our business owners were applying for city, county, state, and federal grants, but those programs took time–and sometimes required financial documentation, such as profit and loss statements, that some of our business owners did not have.”

The Chamber–more accurately, Slaton-Young, who was the only Chamber employee at the time–responded by going business to business to document damage and talk with businesses. In many cases, she was able to cut a check on the spot, enabling business owners to start on repairs and re-open much sooner.

“When we received the Flexible Funding grant, I knew exactly what I would do with it: hire a full-time executive administrative assistant who could handle setting up calls, working with members to access programs, and set up our Salesforce system so that we could track all of our connections with members,” she said.

The Chamber was one of five Flexible Funding grant recipients to also receive a capacity-building grant to improve administrative operations–resources that have proven vital during times of crisis and times of growth.

Now Slaton-Young’s growth plans include building a team to conduct broader and deeper outreach not only with business owners, but also local residents and other stakeholders.

Connecting business and community needs is also a goal for Alexis Esparza, president of Economic Strategies Development Corporation in Pilsen. With the Trust’s Flexible Funding grant, the organization hired two outreach people–a 50 percent increase in total staff.

“The new outreach team spreads the word about our programs to new takers, but more than that, they are our eyes and ears, truly understanding what the community is looking for,” said Esparza.

This team started during the pandemic–a time when relief programs and pandemic restrictions changed often, and many businesses were on the brink, reducing activity in commercial corridors. ESDC was able not only to provide up-to-date information to business owners through its outreach team, but also deeper support such as negotiating with suppliers to provide grace periods on bills due.

The organization also developed “Shop Pilsen,” a campaign to understand local consumer’s needs and spark word-of-mouth marketing for local businesses to revitalize commercial corridors in the area. The organization posted banners and provided yard signs to residents with the “Shop Pilsen” slogan, prompting neighbors to shop local.

“This program embraces the expertise, power and solutions of neighborhood-based organizations in majority Black and Latinx communities not only to adapt to these extraordinary times, but thrive and drive financial resources to help realize their communities’ priorities,” said Aponte.

Learn more about the Flexible Funding program