Getting to Know Deborah Liverett and Northern Trust Grantmaking

Corporate philanthropy is a big deal in Chicago, where some of the world’s top businesses are headquartered and millions of grant dollars flow. As part of a corporate funder series, Crain’s Chicago Business recently interviewed Deborah Liverett, who manages Northern Trust’s corporate grantmaking as its Director of Community Affairs. Liverett joined the firm in 1993 and is now responsible for all philanthropic initiatives, employee volunteerism, and community development activities.

The Northern Trust, which is based in Chicago, has contributed more than $120 million in support of non-profit organizations in the last decade. It's philanthropic arm has the rather unwieldy name of the Northern Trust Charitable Trust. While the firm is global in scope, its philanthropy is focused almost exclusively on Chicago.

Which is to say that Deborah Liverett is a good person to know if you run a nonprofit in Chicago. At least if that nonprofit's work jives with the priorities of the Northern Trust Charitable Trust.

Here are the most important things for potential grantseekers to keep in mind about this grantmaking outfit.

Priority is Given to Certain Chicago Neighborhoods

The Northern Trust Charitable Trust currently gives priority to organizations that serve certain neighborhoods of Chicago. Specifically, priority is given to programs or groups that serve Chatham, Englewood, Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Loop, Washington Park, and West Town.

The Trust Has Streamlined Grantmaking

The Northern Trust has recently streamlined its grantmaking strategy to only fund causes that align with giving priorities. The 125-year-old firm used to give to a variety of housing, food, child care and health care causes. However, today, it only makes grants to benefit disadvantaged women and their children and people with disabilities. That said, it takes a pretty broad approach to helping these groups, funding not only direct human services but education and arts and culture.

“We used to give a little bit of money to a lot of places,” Liverett explained to Crains. “About eight years ago, we said, 'OK, let's step back. If we can give more money to smaller numbers of organizations, we can be more impactful.' “

Giving Has Dropped as the Economy Has Improved

Shortly after streamlining its priorities, Northern Trust Charitable Trust ramped up its giving because of the recession. Liverett said that the firm saw an increase in funding requests during this time, which meant that she and her staff had to really focus on these specific priorities and decide what was most important. As the U.S. economy has begun to slowly improve, the firm's giving levels have slightly dipped.

Metrics and Results Matter

Too many times, Liverett has seen an eloquently written grant proposal that can’t be backed up by a site visit. With Liverett in charge, the Trust knows better than to judge a book by its cover. And that cuts both ways: Groups that can't write good proposals sometimes are doing great work. “You could be pleasantly surprised,” Liverett says. Still, a good plan matters to this funder. Liverett is looking for clear proposals that offer metrics and show the results of its efforts. No matter how big or small, grantseekers need to be detailed and demonstrate a sound budget.

Most Northern Trust grants are between $15,000 and $200,000 each. To learn more about Northern Trust grantmaking, check out the Charitable Trust page for application information, checklists, and deadlines. You can reach Deborah Liverett by phone in her office at 312-630-1762.