A Top Community Foundation Helps Small Arts Groups Develop Their Management Chops


In the last few years, we’ve reported on the Chicago Community Trust’s work as a founding partner in Benefit Chicago, a groundbreaking $100 million effort to mobilize impact investments in the city. This undertaking, which launched in 2016, stands out because of its goal to democratize impact investing—investing for both social good and financial return—by offering buy-ins for as low as $20 online. It was also one of the first large city-focused impact investing programs. This funder's embrace of impact investing has been followed by others around the country, like the Coastal Community Foundation in Charleston and the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta. 

Meanwhile, the Chicago Community Trust, which is one of the oldest community foundations in the U.S., is also a player in the in the Windy City’s gun violence prevention efforts and keeps many other partnerships and initiatives in play, including its SMART Growth capacity-building program for Cook County’s small arts and culture organizations—those with an operating budget of less than $1 million. This approach to arts grantmaking falls in line with CCT’s overall embrace of general operating support, another area where it's played a leadership role among both Chicago funders and the world of community foundations.

This summer, CCT announced the 30 nonprofits selected for the new SMART Growth class. They will receive multifaceted support in strengthening management practices along with a combined $3 million over four years. The American Indian Center, Chicago Independent Radio Project, Kalapriya Dance Center for Indian Performing Arts, and Korean Cultural Center of Chicago are among the members of the 2018 SMART Growth cohort.

“The strength of our region's cultural vitality is rooted in the diverse landscape of community-based arts and cultural organizations like the ones that participate in SMART Growth," Sandra Aponte, CCT senior program officer for arts and culture, said.

As we’ve reported, SMART Growth, which first launched in 2005, aims to help organizations engage their board and staff in strengthening management practices in support of their mission, so that they can contribute to the community, pay artists and staff a living wage, and be resilient during shifts in demographics or the economy. Each group receives a customized initial assessment by the Arts & Business Council of Chicago centered on factors and functions like income generation, financial management, and board governance. They also undergo training in SMART Growth methodology, which is based on building outcomes that are “Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Timed.” These supports are followed by three years of general operating grants ranging from $15,000 to $50,000 annually. The program now has 99 cultural organizations as alumni.

"The SMART Growth methodology empowers artistic founders, board members, and staff leaders to recognize strength and reallocate their limited resources toward lagging management areas, so that the organization's foundation is solid and they can be resilient in the face of challenges like the loss of a founder, changing demographics, or economic shifts,” Aponte says.

In 2010, CCT commissioned an evaluation of the SMART Growth methodology and in 2014, it carried out a longitudinal study tracking the first cohort five years after their involvement with the program. The corresponding evaluation report, published in 2015, states this summary finding:

The SMART Growth program’s positive impact on developing critical management practices between 2006 and 2009 was sustained between 2010 and 2013, resulting in a more resilient and sustainable cohort as evidenced through growth in income, staffing levels, board support and continued investment in strategic planning.

The report also shares that though the majority of management areas evaluated saw sustained gains, “a few waning management benchmarks suggest a need for more targeted technical support” that could help the grantees maintain improved practices after the capacity-building program concludes. These include microlevel planning, audience analysis, and staff transitions.

Explore the SMART Growth Evaluation Report in more depth on the CCT site. Applications for the next four-year SMART Growth cycle with CCT will be accepted in 2021. CCT also provides funding in the form of responsive grants and general operating support in many other areas, including community vitality, economic development, education, health, housing, and sustainable communities. In 2017, it made combined grant commitments totaling $323.8 million.