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Armed With $217,000, 29 Local Nonprofits Go to Work

Recipients of the Evanston Community Foundation’s annual responsive grants say the foundation provides not just money to get creative but advice to improve.

The $217,000 distributed to local nonprofits through the ’s responsive grant program this year will be the most the organization has ever given out.

Founded in 1986, the organization has awarded grants to local nonprofits on a yearly basis since 1987. The 2012 class of grantees, announced in May, will be the largest ever. From a pool of 64 applicants, 24 nonprofits were chosen to receive money through the organization’s responsive grants initiative, which funds programs and infrastructure at local nonprofits. 

“It’s a record-breaking year for our responsive grants,” says Marybeth Schroeder, VP of programs at the Evanston Community Foundation. “We have steadily increased for the past 12 years, including during the downturn.”

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Funded by an endowment as well as donations from community members and Northwestern University’s Dance Marathon, the Evanston Community Foundation supports everything from drug abuse prevention to arts programs to legal aid. Each year, a committee composed of members of the foundation, local residents and the co-chairs of Dance Marathon consider all of the grant applications, with the goal of selecting those organizations whose proposals will make the biggest long-term impact on the community. 

“They’re often things where the grant goes to one organization, but it really makes an impact on the lives of people who might be served by another,” explains Schroeder. 

Schroeder cites as an example of how one organization can create a ripple effect throughout the community. Last year, the 28-year-old nonprofit applied for funds for “Project 20,” an effort to move 20 of the most chronically homeless people off the streets. Since the funds were distributed last July, Connections for the Homeless has already found housing for 16 to 18 people, according to Schroeder. That releases resources from other nonprofits, like food pantries and shelters, who can then help even more people. 

Connections for the Homeless is repeating Project 20 this year, with the help of a $13,000 grant from the Evanston Community Foundation. The organization will focus on those people who have the most serious health problems, ones that could be exacerbated by exposure, according to Sue Loellbach, director of development.

The money is valuable now more than ever, Loellbach says, given the tough economy. While government funding for shelters has remained fairly steady, the increase in need has skyrocketed, doubling in the past five years.

“It is continuing to climb, and we’re anticipating that it’s going to continue to climb,” she explains. “People who have lost their jobs with the downturn in the economy, they’re going to exhaust all of their other resources before they hit the street and before they come to us, so there’s going to be a lag.” 

The grant money from the Evanston Community Foundation lets Connections for the Homeless be creative with the ways in which they help those people, she explains.

Last year, for example, Connections for the Homeless helped an illegal immigrant from Sweden who had been homeless in the area for the past 20 years. The nonprofit got in touch with a homeless shelter in Sweden and worked with immigration services so that he could go back home. 

“It’s not predictable. We can’t line up government funding in advance for everything we’re going to need,” she says. “What we want to do is whatever it takes to get somebody off the streets.” 

Beyond simply the funding, Loellbach says the Evanston Community Foundation also provides partnership and guidance. Grant recipients receive half of the money in June, and the rest six months later. In between, they report back to the Evanston Community Foundation to discuss how the money is being used, and what they can do better.

“They really are paying attention to what the issues are in Evanston and the programs that agencies like ours are trying to develop to address those,” she says. “They give us really good feedback about what they feel is working and what isn’t, and allow us to learn.” 

Fellow grant recipient Gay Riseborough, president and chair of the , seconds Loellbach’s sentiments about the partnership and mentoring the foundation provides. 

In contrast to Connections for the Homeless, Grandmother Park Initiative is younger and smaller. Riseborough founded the nonprofit four years ago along with neighbor and fellow grandmother Mary Trujillo. They are raising $250,000 to build a park and playground on an empty lot at 1125 Dewey Avenue, in an area that Riseborough describes as “dramatically underserved” by the city park department.

“We both have a grandson the same age, and we were talking about how there’s no place to take them to play when our grandchildren came to visit us,” she says. “We thought it would be a good thing to do for the neighborhood.”

Grandmother Park Initiative has received three grants from the Evanston Community Foundation in the past three years: the first for printing costs, the second for public relations and this year, a $6,000 general grant.

“They are very specific about the things they want to encourage you to do, and they’re usually right,” Riseborough says. “They really know how to get things going and none of us have raised money before, so we need that.” 

The Evanston Community Foundation also provides workshops to nonprofits on such topics as social media, building a donor base and recruiting volunteers, a service Riseborough says has been helpful to strengthening her fledgling nonprofit for long-term success.

That’s the ultimate goal of the Evanston Community Foundation, says Schroeder, whether it’s done through networking events for nonprofits or financial grants to spur structural development.

“We try to support the nonprofit community in Evanston so it can be as strong is it can be,” she says.

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