Unlocking Potential: What a Funder is Doing Around Chicago’s Rivers

Ink Drop/shutterstock

Ink Drop/shutterstock

With so much attention lately to such high-profile environmental issues as climate change and ocean protection, domestic U.S. grantmaking for rivers is easy to overlook. Yet as we’ve often reported, there’s a lot of funder action in this space.

For example, protecting rivers is a major focus of the Walton Family Foundation’s environmental grantmaking, with tens of millions of dollars flowing for initiatives centered on the Colorado and Mississippi rivers. Meanwhile, the William Penn Foundation is a regional funder that’s led major efforts in this space through its work around the Delaware River Watershed.

Urban funders are also giving attention to rivers, often as part of a broader push to revitalize cities and create new green spaces. A case in point is the activity around Chicago’s river system, where some funders and civic leaders see an opportunity to advance environmental goals while also bringing people together in creative ways. There are over 150 miles of riverside land in the city, thanks to the Chicago, Des Plaines, and Calumet rivers, which flow through a diverse range of neighborhoods.

Few funders know and appreciate Chicago’s rivers as much as the Chicago Community Trust (CCT), the local community foundation that helped launch the Great Rivers Chicago initiative in 2015. This ambitious public-private initiative aims to draw more attention and dollars to the waterways here, helping transform old industrial areas into vibrant community assets. Other funders who supported the initiative’s launch included ArcelorMittal, the Boeing Company, the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, and the Joyce Foundation.

In September, CCT announced new grants totaling $810,000 to organizations working to unlock the potential of Chicago’s rivers. The overarching goal of this commitment is to help local residents feel more connected to the riverfront, and hopefully, to each other, as well.

CCT grant recipients who are working on Chicago riverfront efforts include the Chicago Public Art Group, Heartland Housing, the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, and Openlands. The Chicago Public Art Group, for example, is using CCT’s money to develop an outdoor museum concept with gardens and art installations along the river trail in Portage Park. Meanwhile, the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community is working with partners, including REI, to establish a wayfinding program to make the newly established Chinatown Special Service Area and 18th Street bridge interactive for visitors.

Thus far, CCT’s riverfront-focused grants have mostly been in the $50,000 to $100,000 range. The overall size of this year’s Great Rivers commitment is very similar to what CCT dedicated to the cause last year, and the grant application process was pretty much the same, as well. The program accepts proposals from community-led groups that find ways to combine at least two CCT priorities in order to bring people and rivers together. Namely, these priorities are sustainable development, economic development, public health, and arts and culture.

This year, CCT received 30 proposals requesting almost $2.5 million total for the initiative, but the foundation only funded 11 of those proposals for a total of $810,000. But what’s notable here is the highly collaborative nature of these grants. Of the new 11 proposals funded, more than 70 partner organizations are now moving their riverfront projects forward. These funds can be applied fairly broadly to projects, programs, and planning efforts, but not for capital expenditures such as supplies or equipment.

Notably, CCT’s riverfront giving values racial equity in the grantee selection process. CCT sees the city’s rivers as a way to improve Chicago’s struggling neighborhoods that have yet to rise above poverty and racial segregation. It’s yet another way to approach equity through grantmaking, and an interesting one that seems to be working well so far.