With Violent Crime Spiking in Some Cities, Can Philanthropy Make Any Difference?

If you live in Chicago, it’s been impossible to flip on the news lately and not hear another devastating report about violence somewhere in the city, with the homicide rate spiking in recent years. Local foundations aren’t blind to this mounting crisis, but addressing issues of violence through philanthropy is often easier said than done. While this problem can weigh intensely on ordinary people—especially in certain urban neighborhoods during the hot summer months—funders often appear unable to do much about it, especially in an immediate way. Philanthropy is far better at, say, backing programs to help teenagers graduate high school than making sure that those same kids don't get murdered this weekend. 

So we were struck by the recent creation of a new funders collaborative, the Chicago Fund for Safe and Peaceful Communities, that really is focused on reducing violence in the city right now. The fund, backed by familiar philanthropic heavy hitters in Chicago, aims to "support immediate intervention by organizations that are proactively working to keep our neighborhoods safe over the Labor Day holiday weekend and through the beginning of the school year." 

A few broad points of context, here, before looking more closely at how the fund will operate.

First, there are a few currents at work, both nationally and locally, that may help explain where this collaboration came from. Nationally, there's been a lot of attention lately to issues of both race and gun violence. Earlier this summer, over two dozen funders signed a full page ad in the New York Times and other papers saying that were dedicated to finding solutions and that there were "reasons for hope" at a moment of considerable anguish. You can see why Chicago funders might put their heads together to take some concrete actions along similar lines to generate hope in their own community. 

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Locally, it's hard to overstate the degree to which spiking violence and murder has preoccupied Chicagoans, from the mayor downward, including local community leaders and parents. It makes sense that the city's top funders would want to be responsive here—and all the more so, after MacArthur, a member of this collaborative, was zinged in May by black community leader Phillip Jackson, who charged that the foundation was ignoring the needs of African Americans. Jackson wrote:

Chicago is MacArthur Foundation's home. Chicago is also ground zero for violence and murder in the United States. As one of the wealthiest foundations in the world, MacArthur ought to be at the forefront of reducing Chicago's violence and murders.

In June, community activists demonstrated outside of MacArthur's headquarters, with signs that said things like, "MacArthur should help Chicago or leave Chicago," and "No more violence, no more killing."

While the foundation responded that it had, indeed, invested heavily in its home city to the tune of over $1 billion since 1979, this new anti-violence fund suggests that Jackson's comments may have really struck a chord with both Mac and other funders. 

Meanwhile, as we've observed, another member of this collaboration—the Chicago Community Trust—has lately worked with a new intensity to address the economic and racial inequities in Chicoago and to listen to community input. 

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One last bit of context here: This new effort is yet another example of a funder collaboration coming to the rescue when traditional grantmaking approaches fall short. Increasingly, it seems funders are teaming up to tackle the toughest problems. 

So now, the details of the new fund. Here's the full list of funders involved:

  • Chicago Community Trust
  • Joyce Foundation
  • John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
  • Robert R. McCormick Foundation
  • Polk Bros. Foundation
  • Woods Fund Chicago

There are some grant opportunities immediately available through this fund. Overall, there’s $300,000 in this fund, and the new grants range from $1,000 to $10,000 each. All grants are awarded to local community nonprofits in Chicago and fund causes that “promote community cohesion, foster constructive relationships between police and community residents, and help reduce violence.”

What’s interesting about this new fund and its grant opportunity is the urgency. This isn’t the type of situation where foundations sit back and wait for nonprofits to chip away at a program over the course of a few years. The deadline to apply for this grant opportunity is September 30, and all activities must be completed by October 31. There’s a youth-focused angle with this funds’ initial push and an effort to start off the 2016-2017 school year violence-free. Labor Day weekend is one of the deadliest times in the city, so there are some excellent reasons for this urgency.

The timing might be quick, but this is no quick fix or one-time funding effort. Each of these funders already has a longstanding commitment to the issue of violence in Chicago, and this is merely an extension of each of those. What future rounds of funding through this collaborative may look like is yet to be seen.

Below are some of the types of things that the new anti-violence fund is looking to support. As you can see, there are some really casual activities here, but sometimes the most grassroots efforts are the ones that finally get through to unreachable populations.

  • Educational events
  • Group or youth activities
  • Resident leader stipends
  • Recreational activities
  • Festivals
  • Performances
  • Picnics
  • Block-level activities
  • Rental of venues and supplies

You can view the full application guidelines on the Chicago Community Trust website. Local community leaders will review the applications, and grant decisions are being made on a rolling basis. Senior program officer Deborah Bennett from the Polk Brothers Foundation is chairing that advisory council, and she’s joined by representatives from Joyce, McCormick, MacArthur, Woods, the Prim Lawrence Group, and the Adler University Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice.