The Steans (pronounced Stains) Family Foundation has been working for seven years to revitalize North Lawndale, a suburb of Chicago. Once a thriving area, in the 1960s North Lawndale became instead one of the West Side’s “mean streets.” Today, the community is teetering between recovery and collapse as developers and drug dealers compete for control of its many empty lots. But a capacity-building experiment the Steans Foundation has undertaken with a software company may tip the scale in favor of North Lawndale’s hardworking citizens.
“The capacity-building problem really stood out,” Cynthia Crim, the foundation’s associate executive director, tells Philanthropy. The nonprofits needed help to build the sound administrative infrastructures that would let them “stretch themselves.” Crim and Willie Cole, the director of human and organization development, took a step last year that other foundations are increasingly likely to take—they began recruiting an “intermediary” to help build the capacity of the nonprofit groups they support. Steans’ choice was Chicago’s Nonprofit Financial Center (NFC). NFC attracted Crim and Cole because it could address specific problems, as well as make site visits, assess each nonprofit’s weaknesses, and design programs to correct troublesome areas.
Such arrangements are fairly common today, but this one took an unexpected turn. At the time Crim and Cole were piecing together their plan, Jennifer Steans, a board trustee who had yet to learn of the discussions with NFC, was talking with B2P software’s Jason Saul about a new program his company was preparing to release that needed test-marketing. Impressed with the program and confident it could benefit her foundation’s grantees, Steans went to Crim and Cole with hopes that North Lawndale could be the test market.
When the three got together and learned of one another’s work, they opted to merge their ideas and create something new. “We thought,” says Cole, “if they’ve got this product that needs to be tested before going on the market, here’s an opportunity for us.” The foundation went back to NFC and formalized a relationship whereby B2P provides free copies of its NonprofitBooks 2002 software to 15 North Lawndale nonprofits, and NFC trains them in its proper use. In exchange, B2P gets to do case studies on how the product is applied and how it works. The Steans Foundation also benefits with more standardized reports from the groups that take part in the training.
“These organizations are excited because there’s no cheap software they can buy that meets their needs,” Steans says. “This is a much better way for us to track data.” Even if the grantees weren’t receiving the software for free, it would be an affordable option for many because it will cost only $249 a copy.
This formal, contractual relationship between Steans, NFC, and B2P is drawing a lot of interested eyes. Both the MacArthur and Annie E. Casey foundations are studying the experiment closely. And Cole reports that a number of Chicagoland groups, formally and informally, are watching how the relationship develops.
The foundation stresses that no one is forced to work with the B2P program, but Jennifer Steans says, “We have certain requirements for reporting. We don’t require software, but we suggest it,” and we provide the training to use it.
Barbara Elliott of the Center for Renewal in Houston, Texas, sees what is happening in Chicago as a positive “manifestation of a broader movement of more engaged philanthropy.” Elliott observes, however, that nonprofits worried about keeping the lights on cannot afford computers.
The battle for North Lawndale is just beginning. Crim hopes this new arrangement will strengthen the community’s leadership and improve its chance for success. “The family has not said at the end of 2010 we’re out of North Lawndale,” Crim says, but “when we are gone, we want to be sure these [groups] can sustain themselves.”