Business Behind the Scenes in Chicago

Aug 2, 2012
Nunn Family Chicago

Michelle Nunn shares her experiences in Chicago on her Service Tour across country.

You can't help but marvel at Chicago in the summertime. On an evening stroll from the Museum Campus down the lakefront and up through Grant Park to the new Millennium Park, you see extraordinary cultural institutions, beautiful parks, a lively street life and wonderful restaurants.

But what isn’t so visible – a collaboration of business, civic and government leaders, all determined to take on tough city problems in smart, new ways – is just as noteworthy.

Here are three organizations that are engaging business in innovative ways:

  • The Chicago Civic Consulting Alliance was founded more than 20 years ago to bring the expertise and leadership of the business community – pro bono – to bear on the challenges of leading and managing the city. Working with governmental leadership, Civic Consulting takes on meaningful challenges that can be effectively tackled with business resources, scopes the project and solicits from the business community the right skills and human capital to address the problem.

I had the chance to sit down and visit with Gillian Darlow and Alexander Gail Sherman, both members of the Alliance’s management team. They told me that Civic Consulting has leveraged more than $20 million of pro bono services from businesses ranging from Allstate Insurance to Edelman to U.S. Equities Realty. Their newest focus: public safety.  By defining a macro community problem and giving businesses and skilled volunteers the opportunity to work together to solve it, they are creating a way for the larger community be a part of solving the city's greatest challenges. 

The Alliance’s model is now being copied in cities across the country, which is as it should be.

  • Chicago Cares fills more than 40,000 volunteer slots annually and partners with hundreds of corporations. Part of its secret sauce involves engaging volunteers from businesses and training them as project managers and leaders. In this way, volunteer engagement becomes not only a problem-solving project for the city, but also a team-building project for businesses and an important leadership development opportunity for employees. That’s a triple-win, to be sure.

Most recently, Chicago Cares has turned a simple model around – they bring the kids to the volunteers. As part of their Read-with-Me program, they bring children to the offices of General Growth Properties so employees can help kids with reading comprehension, pronunciation and vocabulary. While honing academic skills, the children get a chance to get outside their boundaries and into the workplace with caring adults.

  • I also met HandsOn Suburban Chicago's Board President Tom Gaynor, who took time in between jobs to volunteer and put his skills to work, helping nonprofits figure out how to use volunteers to do mission-critical work. HandsOn Suburban Chicago is now working with dozens of nonprofits to outline high-impact volunteer projects involving marketing skills, financial analysis and human resources management. They are using VISTA AmeriCorps members and an RSVP program to mobilize and channel the passion and skills of experienced and talented volunteers to boost impact for those they serve.

Chris Smith, COO of HandsOn Suburban Chicago, told me that the organization itself has been transformed by adopting the principles of Reimagining Service's Service Enterprise model, bringing in talented volunteers to infuse new capacity, leadership and excitement into their own organization. They’re walking the walk.

Next time I come to Chicago I want to take the architectural tour – and a walking tour of volunteer successes.