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In the last eight years as President and CEO of Chicago Foundation for Women (CFW), I have been privileged to witness major milestones for women and girls, including the first woman to run as a major party candidate for president of the United States and the historic Women’s March. As I leave my post to embark on a new adventure in March 2019, I am reflecting on the progress our region has seen, thanks to the work of CFW’s grantee partners and collaborators. We have increased Illinois’ minimum wage; increased protections for survivors of human trafficking; decreased breast cancer disparities between Black and white women; created a domestic workers’ “Bill of Rights;” and guaranteed full reproductive choice in Illinois, regardless of income or insurance provider.
None of this was achieved by a single person or organization. When we win for women and girls, it is because we have done the work of movement building: Creating alliances around common goals; developing strong collaborative relationships; and building trust. These principles are true for CFW’s successes as well.
A Merger That Worked
When CFW merged with the Eleanor Foundation in 2012, it was a strategic alliance built on our shared goal of economic security for women and girls. Taking time to build trust between boards and staff and maintaining those relationships, with several Eleanor Foundation board members joining CFW’s board, were key in facilitating a smooth merger and successful transition. The work and relationships behind the merger allowed CFW to grow our assets from $5.4 to $15.4 million and double our investments in women and girls over the last eight years, reaching an all-time high of $2.6 million in 2018. Additionally, we’ve ensured the legacy of the Eleanor Foundation remains intact through the Eleanor Network grantmaking model.
The Eleanor Network of CFW has served as a model for investments that address the challenges facing women and girls from multiple angles. The Englewood Women’s Initiative, launched by CFW in 2017, addresses barriers to women’s economic security by bringing together job training and entrepreneurship support with parenting support, domestic violence services and mentorship. By taking a holistic approach, EWI aims to put 60 women, their families and their community on the path to economic security.
Since the strategic alliance with the Eleanor Foundation, we have continued to seek out partnerships to deepen our impact and to create innovative models for funding and services.
The Power of Collaboration
Collaboration isn’t just good for our grantee partners - it is good for funders. Joining forces with Crossroads Fund, Woods Fund and groups like the African American Legacy at Chicago Community Trust has produced new leadership development programs focused on the needs of women of color, CULTIVATE and Willie’s Warriors, in honor of the late Rev. Willie Taplin Barrow.
As our region’s frontline funder of women and girls, CFW is able to bring a gender lens to the work of peer foundations. To develop new solutions addressing domestic violence, CFW brought together funders working in health, education and building safe communities. The result was the FIRST (Family and Interpersonal Resilience and Safety Transformation) Fund, a pooled fund for promising anti-violence work within and beyond the traditional domestic violence sector. The FIRST Fund expands traditional thinking about solutions to domestic violence to include worker-led movements, immigrant services and early education. The FIRST Fund was an outcome of another CFW-led collaboration bringing together leaders in the domestic violence sector to share and learn from each other.
In all of this, developing strong, trusting relationships between funders, grantee partners, and communities was critical. Trust allows for creative risk taking, collaboration focused on results, not ego, and constructive feedback necessary for innovation.
You build trust by showing up. This is as true for building movements as for building relationships with donors, staff and organizations. As we strive to build collaborations across sector and movements, showing up reflects the understanding that our issues and our liberation are bound together. The domestic violence sector must show up for immigrant and refugee women. Building safe communities and fair workplaces must include safety and dignity for our LGBTQ neighbors and colleagues. Women must show up for racial justice. We must show up for one another.
It has been one of the greatest honors of my life to lead CFW’s efforts to increase investments in women and girls and to work alongside our partners, collaborators and grantees to build safe, just and healthy communities. Together, we have worked to build an all-out, all-in movement for equity.
K. Sujata, a strong advocate for women and girls, has been president and CEO of the Chicago Foundation for Women since 2011. She previously served as director of programs for the Eleanor Foundation which merged with CFW in 2012. Prior to entering the nonprofit sector, Sujata trained as a scientist.