Community-based nonprofits grow with help from UChicago program

Community Programs Accelerator celebrates fifth year of addressing needs on South Side

True to its name, the Community Programs Accelerator at the University of Chicago empowers South Side nonprofits to take off quickly. 

Since its founding five years ago, the initiative has served nearly 120 local nonprofits and 2,000 workshop attendees by providing them access to an array of University resources that help them strengthen their impact on the mid-South Side. 

Since joining the Accelerator’s first cohort in 2014, the Dovetail Project has grown into the largest fatherhood initiative in Illinois, quadrupling the number of young fathers it serves each year. It also received a nearly $1 million grant to collaborate with UChicago Urban Labs on an evaluation to quantify its impact.

“We were doing a good job, but the Accelerator sped up our pace and our process and got us ready to grow,” said Sheldon Smith, founder of the Dovetail Project. “I knew how to do the work, but had to learn how to really be an executive director, make decisions and speak to funders.” 

The Accelerator recently welcomed 34 new community organizations to its innovative program, which is unique among universities in the breadth and depth of its commitment to helping nonprofit neighbors build capacity and grow stronger. Among them are three organizations that joined the Accelerator’s core program to begin their next phase of growth:

  • Affinity Community Services, a social justice nonprofit formed in 1995 to focus on Chicago’s Black LGBTQ community, with a particular focus on women;
  • The Provident Foundation, which provides scholarships and promotes education to urban youth pursuing careers as doctors, nurses and other health care professionals;
  • Woodlawn East Community and Neighbors (WECAN), which refurbishes and operates affordable housing in Woodlawn and offers supportive services, after-school programs and homeowner assistance

The core program provides customized, intensive support for one to three years, including needs assessment, strategic planning, organizational development, and technical and fundraising support. Core participant-level organizations also may receive funding, but for them, the heart of the Accelerator is the focused expertise that University staff, faculty, students and consultants provide.   

The Accelerator also offers an associates program in which nonprofits receive general support over the course of a year to build capacity and complete specific projects; this year’s new associates are 100 Black Men of Chicago, Annie B. Jones Community Services, Inc., Deeply Rooted Dance Theater and LINK Unlimited Scholars. And for organizations with discrete project needs in areas such as marketing or program evaluation, the Accelerator’s special projects program, welcoming 27 organizations this year, provides support for three to six months. 

As an associate member, WECAN built a partnership with Harris Public Policy to assess the state of housing in Woodlawn, track trends and identify residents at risk of being displaced. With the support of the nonprofit developer Preservation of Affordable Housing, Harris students and Woodlawn residents worked together to survey every parcel in the community, and to collect and analyze housing data. WECAN has recently received funding to continue and expand this project. 

As WECAN moves into the Accelerator’s core program, its team looks forward to collaborating with UChicago staff and partners to chart its next steps. “The Accelerator helps you to start thinking and processing where you want to be, where you think you should go, what direction to take,” said Venus Scott, acting director of WECAN. “And if you’re not quite sure, the Accelerator becomes the adviser.”

Launched by the UChicago Office of Civic Engagement, the Accelerator has grown into a University-wide collaboration that includes UChicago Arts, the Harris School of Public Policy, UChicago Medicine—now partnering with the Accelerator to build the capacity of South Side nonprofits working to prevent violence—and the School of Social Service Administration, home to a new certificate program for early- to mid-stage nonprofit professionals working in or focused on the South Side. 

“Thriving neighborhoods have something in common, no matter where they’re located: strong community-based organizations that have the resources and the ability to execute on the vision they have for their communities,” said Ryan K. Priester, director of community programs for the Office of Civic Engagement. “The Accelerator meets nonprofits where they are to strengthen their capacity and put them on a sustainable path to execution, and our new partnerships with SSA and UChicago Medicine will enable us to offer training and support to even more organizations serving the South Side.”

As the Accelerator team looks ahead to its next five years, they plan to continue extending its reach with a new space to incubate nonprofits; new partnerships and services to build the professional capacity of South Side civic leaders; and new ways to measure the positive impact of its collaborations.

—This story first appeared on the Office of Civic Engagement website.