Today, November 12th, marks the beginning of Community Foundations Week. According to the Council on Foundations, this week was established in 1989 by President George H.W. Bush to recognize how community foundations impact the communities they serve. Our own community foundation, Community Foundation of East Central Illinois, has been impacting Champaign-Urbana and beyond for 50 years. At their root, they are stewards of endowments and donations meant for philanthropic aims. However, their work goes beyond just managing money. Through their Center for Nonprofit Excellence and Community Solutions Incubator, they nurture and support the organizations that are out in the field making C-U a better place. 


I reached out to Joan Dixon, President and CEO, and Angie Hatfield Marker, Vice President of Development, to learn more about these initiatives.

Smile Politely: While the Community Foundation is primarily about managing community donations and endowments, an important part of your work involves supporting non-profit organizations in the area through The Center of Nonprofit Excellence. Can you tell us more about what sort of assistance you offer?

Joan Dixon: Our Community Foundation is committed to helping nonprofits and their boards operate as effectively as possible. By working directly with these organizations, we offer assistance in board training and development, strategic planning, help with establishing effective working relationships between the board and the executive staff, mentoring and access to capacity-building resources. By helping nonprofits in this way, we reassure our donors that “Best Practices” are being observed locally.

SP: How has the pandemic shaped relationships between the foundation and the non-profits you work with? How have you been able to continue the services you offer?

Dixon: We had to get creative with how we’d provide that help and assistance to our nonprofit partners in each of the nine counties we serve, especially as we haven’t been able to meet in person for much of this year. In addition to nearly $1.2 million in monetary support provided through our joint COVID-19 Relief Fund with United Way of Champaign County and the more than $1 million we alone distributed in east central Illinois, our staff and volunteer leadership team provided nearly 300 hours of support to area nonprofit leaders through our Building Better Boards program, monthly Executive Director Support Groups, our Community Solutions Incubator initiative and through direct contact with our nonprofit partners to assess and address pressing community needs. For the most part, we were able to do it all virtually. Yes, that’s a lot of Zooming! We’ve also been able to host a few outdoor, socially-distanced, masked-up meetings as well.

Angie Hatfield Marker: The pandemic has strengthened our relationships with our nonprofit partners. We’re so proud of the innovative collaborations we’ve seen in our sector these past nine months. We live in a very generous community with donors who are aware of pressing needs and want to help address those needs. We’re lucky to be able to connect our donors with those nonprofits on the front-lines of the pandemic providing programs and services. And our nonprofit partners are grateful for that connection.

SP: What is the Community Solutions Incubator, and how did the idea for it come about?

Dixon: The Community Solutions Incubator is a newer initiative of our Community Foundation. A few years ago, our board of trustees recognized the importance of new and emerging nonprofit organizations in enhancing the community’s quality of life. One of our trustees, Rebecca McBride, agreed to volunteer her time to serve as our Volunteer Coordinator. Together with a few of our board trustees and a group of community leaders including some friends at the University of Illinois, we launched the Incubator to help strengthen and support these important social change agents. Today Dr. Wynne Korr, retired Dean of the School of Social Work at UIUC, is our Volunteer Coordinator and our membership has grown to ten members.

Hatfield Marker: At the Incubator, emerging and young nonprofit entrepreneurs can pilot their ideas and create supporting structures alongside other social innovators in a well-resourced co-working space here in our Community Foundation building, receiving hands-on mentorship and guidance from some of the area’s most successful community leaders in a variety of fields and disciplines. Networking opportunities, workshops, and seminars — along with limited access to financial support — have created a generative and innovative environment in which the next generation of community leaders and organizations will emerge, not only strengthening our local community but potentially producing replicable programs across the nation.

SP: Can you share about an emerging nonprofit that has benefitted from the incubator program?

Hatfield Marker: We are working with Business Elevator CU, Champaign County Environmental Stewards, CU City Farms, DREAAM, The Family Room, Luella’s Lodge, MakerGirl, Prairie Dragon Paddlers, Rising Sprouts, and WIN Recovery. Each of these nonprofits have very different missions are each is in a different stage of its existence. That is one of the best parts — all the organizations can learn from each other’s experiences — and we see some of the more established organizations’ leaders taking on more of a mentoring role to the younger leaders.

Dixon: CU City Farms is unique because its founder was our Incubator’s first leader. Rebecca stepped down from her role as our or Volunteer Coordinator to join the Incubator as a member. CU City Farms, her nonprofit, runs the Mobile Market, a bus delivering donated food and products to communities with limited access to grocery stores and food pantries while developing relationships in these communities to address other unmet needs.

SP: What is on the horizon for CFECI? Any particular initiatives or goals you'd like to share about?

Dixon: Our organization is almost 50 years old! Now more than ever, we want to continue our work as a leader in promoting philanthropy in an impartial, unbiased, ethical way, with a commitment to inclusiveness. We have an opportunity to build on our solid reputation and long history, but also the emerging awareness of community impact being fueled by collective philanthropy. Our donors are more engaged and aware, and they want to find ways to make meaningful differences in our community. We want to continue introducing them to nonprofits and causes they can support.

Hatfield Marker: We’ll continue working closely with our nonprofit partners to support their work because it’s important work and very few are offering that type of support in our local sector. As we work our way through our next strategic plan, we’re also hoping to introduce the community to a new multi-generational giving initiative—very similar to our Aspiring Philanthropists Giving Circle — and some options for our philanthropic friends in the corporate sector.

Top photo from CU City Farms Facebook page.