Finding our voice: our next steps

It’s 4:00am on a Saturday morning, and I’m wide awake.  Kids and wife are sleeping.  Apartment is quiet.  And it’s the weekend for God’s sake.  But I’m wired.  Why?  Because it’s nearly here.  That is, May 14th is nearly here.  And I’m fired up.

It’s been close to five years since I launched A Better Chicago.  Back then, I had recently told my colleagues at Bain & Company that I wanted to get back to the nonprofit sector, which is what I did before business school.  I learned a ton at Bain and had a great experience.  But my heart was pulling me in a different direction.

Chicago has a lot going for it.  World class universities.  More than two dozen Fortune 500 companies.  A growing hub of technology, entrepreneurship and innovation.  Art.  Culture.  Sports.  The lake.  The parks.  Ravinia.  Little Goat.  Doughnut Vault.  Zoo lights.  And a ridiculous amount of civic pride. 

And yet, we are grappling with some deeply serious problems—including poverty, crime and a lack of opportunity—that are hurting all of us.  These are vexing issues that affect Chicago and so many other cities like us.  And at the core of these issues—every single one—is education.  Here is a statistic that keeps me up at night: for every 100 students in Chicago Public Schools, only 14 will graduate from college by the age of 25.  Think about that for a minute.  14%.  This isn’t the 19th century or even the 20th century.  This is 2015.  People say we live in the information age.  College isn’t a luxury anymore.  It’s a pre-requisite.  And yet, the vast majority of our kids aren’t getting to the finish line.  Nothing threatens the future of our country—and Chicago—more than the quality of our education.      

Prioritizing education is a huge first step.  But attacking this problem with “charity as usual” is not enough.  If we are serious about delivering a world class education to every Chicagoan, then we need to think differently about philanthropy.  More specifically, we need to double down behind the most effective solutions that are truly improving outcomes for low-income youth.  It’s all about whether you are dramatically improving a student’s chance of graduating from college.  Further, we need to pair our financial support with intellectual support.  Nonprofits need more than just funding.  Just like any good company, they need a thoughtful business plan, strong leadership and effective marketing.  We need to provide them with the tools to be successful.      

So, I wanted to transform education by transforming how philanthropy works.  Got it.  Seems reasonable enough.  And that’s why I founded A Better Chicago.   

If A Better Chicago were a band, I’d say that we were influenced by the great works of the Robin Hood Foundation (The Rolling Stones?), the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation (Prince?) and the Tipping Point Community (Foo Fighters?).  They don’t fund what sounds nice.  They fund what works.  And, their investments in nonprofits go well beyond just writing a check.  They make their grantees better.  We’ve learned so much from them, but we’ve also developed our own voice.

Our first several years have been about “proof of concept”.  We’ve developed a rigorous due diligence process, screened hundreds of organizations, and have carefully constructed a portfolio of twelve outstanding organizations.  We have provided our grantees with substantial financial and management support to help them improve and scale.  Our portfolio is now serving approximately 23,000 Chicagoans annually.  We have assembled a dedicated board and leadership council that underwrite all of our operating expenses.  We earned the trust of over 700 individuals, families and companies, who have donated generously to us to support our mission.  And, we hired an amazing team that works tirelessly to make it all happen.  But we’re just getting started.

Last year, a woman named Katherine Bradley (Lady Gaga?) came to Chicago and gave a speech.  It was one of the best presentations I have ever witnessed.  Katherine and her husband started something called the CityBridge Foundation in Washington DC.  They fund a number of excellent educational programs and have a similar mission to A Better Chicago.  But Katherine had done something special that caught my attention.  She had developed a plan.  Not just a plan for her organization, but a plan for Washington DC.  Katherine believed that DC—which also suffers from a bad public education system—needed a bold, long range plan if it was ever going to really move the needle on student outcomes.  Further, she said the plan needed to be durable and independent from political forces.  It needed to be rooted in a single, quantifiable overarching objective.  And, the plan needed to be focused on change at the school level.  Shifting around resources at the mother ship is a popular game, but real change happens in the classroom.  And so that’s exactly what she created—a ten-year plan to dramatically improve educational outcomes for DC students.  Katherine believes that DC needs a plan.  Hell, EVERY city needs this type of plan!  Katherine gave us the inspiration to take our work to the next level.

Over the past eleven months, our team has been focused on developing a plan for Chicago that builds off of our experience to date and what we’ve learned from others.  We’ve sought input and advice from easily over 100 people—educators, experts, philanthropists, nonprofits, business leaders, government types, both here in Chicago and in cities across the country.  We’ve invested thousands of hours in planning, analyzing and learning.  We’ve worked nights and weekends and made lots of sacrifices.  I have a few more grey hairs on my head.  And we’ve had a lot of fun along the way.  I don’t think I’ve ever been as inspired and charged up in my career.

Here’s where we landed.  On May 14th, at our benefit, we will be announcing our plan.  Over the next decade, we are going to double our portfolio (to approximately 25 organizations), which is made up of Chicago’s most effective and innovative schools and programs.  We are going to invest significant financial and intellectual capital into these organizations to help them grow and serve 80,000 more students annually by 2025.  This would make our portfolio equivalent to the second largest school district in the Midwest, and bigger than the public school districts of Boston, San Francisco and Seattle.  And while Chicago Public Schools currently has a 14% college graduation rate, we have set a goal of achieving a 60% college graduation rate for our portfolio by 2025.  Yes, we want to quadruple the current rate all while serving the same types of kids.  It’s not the end game, but it’s a gigantic step in the right direction.  And while we’re at it, we are raising the bar for transparency and accountability.  Our brand new website provides unparalleled visibility into how we and our grantees are performing.  It’s part of how we are transforming philanthropy. 

It’s going to be a huge challenge to pull this off.  We have a lot of work in front of us.  Like any plan, we’ll make refinements along the way.  We’ll keep learning and improving.  But we’re committed to making this happen.  And, we know that we’ll need your help to get there.

Please consider how you can make a difference.  We need heroic acts of generosity.  That’s right, heroic.  From the kid in elementary school to the corporate leader, we need everyone to STEP UP.  A generous donor once said to me “Liam, I am really stretching to make this donation.  But honestly, it feels good to stretch.”  I couldn’t say it any better.  We believe we have created the most impactful vehicle for driving change in our city.  I wouldn’t say that unless I deeply believed it.  We’ve built the engine, but now we need your energy to fuel it.  Whether it’s $10 or $10 million, whether it’s donating a birthday or your firm’s expertise, please consider how you can play a role in building the Chicago we all deserve.  

 

Photo by Bert Verhoeff (ANEFO)