James Lewis, Chicago Community Trust

TITLE: Senior Program Officer & Director of Research and Evaluation

FUNDING AREAS: Human services, workforce development, criminal justice, human relations, organizational development, and policy advocacy

CONTACT: jlewis@cct.org, 312-616-8000

IP TAKE: Lewis doesn't mess around with excess and fluff when it comes to grant funding. Since joining the Chicago Community Trust, he has encouraged mergers of non-profit organizations and the consolidation of resources to cut wasteful spending.

PROFILE: In 2012 James Lewis (who often goes by Jim) spoke at a panel hosted by the Association for Fundraising Professionals to address concerns about assessing startup capital and building financial sustainability. After speaking at length about financial management and proactively addressing budget issues while they're still manageable, Lewis offered non-profit organizations the following advice as they seek funding:

1) Reduce expenses through:

  • Mergers
  • Shared back office (legal services, accounting, office space, and so on)
  • Program delivery collaborations (it may eliminate an FTE or .5 FTE you an employee)

2) Increase revenue through:

  • Institutional fundraising (so many NFPs are not raising funds in the traditional sense, this is the most reliable, least risky, and viable method to drive revenue)
  • Diversify grant funding and contracts (no single funder should bring in more than 50% of your annual revenues) by writing more proposals and building more relationships
  • Develop long-term planning to build financial sustainability by including ways to drive nontraditional revenue

In addition to his support for mergers and collaborations, Lewis is picky about how every penny of the Chicago Community Trust's (CCT) grant money is actually spent. In 2012, Lewis declined funding for a grant request from Casa Central, which provides housing, youth programs, and career training to the Hispanic population of Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood because, like many foundations, the CCT restricts funds for specific uses. Those uses don't usually include basic necessities like electricity, heating, and payroll. Because Casa Central applied for a $100,000 "no-strings-attached" grant, so CCT did not fund their request.

Some of the projects Lewis does fund include increasing operating efficiencies at the United Way, overseeing Chicago's 10-year plan to end homelessness, and evaluating poverty strategies to maximize resource use.

Prior to joining CCT, Lewis served as director of the Roosevelt University Institute for Metropolitan Affairs and as vice president for research and planning at the Chicago Urban League. Not surprisingly, he specialized in education finance and urban economic development. He earned his PhD in American History from Northwestern University.

He has authored numerous articles, including "The Size of the Illinois Human Service Workforce," and has spoken at events like the Funding Social Innovation, Enterprise and Best Practice Models seminar. In a recent Chicago Tribune interview, Lewis suggested that merger negotiations between non-profit organizations should start before too much debt accumulates, because debt is a red flag for donors. "Mergers don't occur for two reasons," he said. "One is a lack of board leadership. The other is reluctance on the part of the executive director — because one of the two executive directors is going to merge himself out of a job."

If you're looking to apply for a poverty grant, your organization should aim to improve access to public benefits or advocate for the social safety net. CCT fully supports efforts by the state of Illinois to develop benefit systems that maximize enrollments of eligible clients. According to the CCT website, timing for funding of these projects is subject to the roll-out of the state framework project. It seems that CCT won't fund any poverty grants until this new system is determined. Keep up developments in the State of Illinois Framework if you're looking to apply for any type of poverty grant in the near future.

If your nonprofit aims to expand workforce solutions, Lewis is looking for organizations that focus on job placement and training programs. If your organization helps unemployed individuals enter the labor market with transferable skills and find employment positions with liable wages, then you may have a chance at a workforce grant.

VIDEO: