Changing the World At Home

by Jim Burwitz

Since its humble beginnings, CFCI has invested more than $75 million in grants, among other services, to the Peoria-area community.

In the 2016-2017 fiscal year, CFCI distributed over $242,000 in scholarship support to 96 recipients from a total of 43 scholarship funds.

What is a community foundation? Mark Roberts, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Central Illinois, gets that question a lot. Over the past 10 years, he’s managed to craft a summary that perfectly describes the organization and all of the many ways it evolves to meet the needs of a growing community.

CFCI is a collection of legacy funds—from scholarships to field-of-interest funds, from donor-advised funds to unrestricted funds. It’s also a broker of numerous other philanthropic services.

But if Roberts had to boil it down to one sentence to describe what he and his small, dedicated staff do, it would be this: “We help everyone—our donors, our nonprofit partners and other stakeholders—change the world, starting from home.”

Humble Beginnings
The very first community foundation was started by native Illinoisan Frederick H. Goff, a banker and lawyer in Cleveland. Goff conceived of the idea to pool the resources from all walks of life, living and dead, into one permanent endowment that could benefit Cleveland in perpetuity. That was 1914, and the Cleveland Foundation was born. Today, more than a century later, those seeds have grown into more than $2 billion in total assets for the Cleveland Foundation, and Goff’s idea has blossomed into more than 1,700 community foundations around the world.

The Community Foundation of Central Illinois, originally the Peoria Area Community Foundation, got its start in 1985 at a time when the area was struggling. Between 1981 and 1985, Peoria was facing double-digit unemployment as legions of workers were laid off by Caterpillar and its suppliers, while other top employers, like the Pabst Brewing Co., also left town. The need for charity was great, but our community foundation was eyed skeptically at first.

“It was not something that was a darling right at the beginning—far from it,” said Edward W. Siebert (1927-2015), one of the original founders, in recounting those early years. “It was viewed as a competitor, no matter how much we talked about it.” At the time, Siebert ran the Caterpillar Foundation, a source of early support. “It was an uphill battle… in the early stages.”

Likely because of that view, giving was slow to take off. It wasn’t until 1989 that there was enough money to start giving some away. Between October 1989 and April 1991, the foundation received requests for grants totaling $795,339—but was able to give out only $55,895.

A Network for Good
Today, more than 30 years after its start, it’s hard to imagine the local philanthropic landscape without CFCI. Roberts, only the fourth executive of the foundation, has been overseeing its growth since 2008. During that time, total assets have grown from $24 million to $38 million, and total grants since the organization was founded have surpassed $75 million.

CFCI also attained accreditation with the National Standards for U.S. Community Foundations—the highest standards for philanthropic excellence—during Roberts’ tenure. Though not mandatory, it’s a rigorous review of 41 national standards in six key areas, including donor services, investment management, grantmaking and administration.

“To be accredited means we’ve reached the highest standards for philanthropic excellence,” says Roberts. “Our stock-in-trade is trust. We want the community to know that they can entrust us with what is often their life’s work.

“I think what attracts people to us most are three key things: the tax advantages, the flexibility, and most importantly, the charitable impact,” he adds.

Investing in CFCI, a public charity and not a private foundation, means donors receive the maximum available deduction for their donations, while avoiding excise taxes and other restrictions placed on private foundations. Donors can give how much or how little they choose, in practically any form—from cash to real estate to art—and for either a general cause or a very specific one.

“We work closely with the entire nonprofit community in the 50-mile radius we cover so that we understand their needs and can target our grants to do the most good,” says Roberts. “It’s our job to take care of all the investing, government reporting, grant research, paperwork, auditing and accounting so you don’t have to.”


Friends of Proctor Center was recognized as the 2017 Emerging Philanthropists grant recipient, receiving $4,300 to support the “A Show of Hands” handball program.

Ever-Changing Roles
Despite being built on a model over a century old, community foundations are fluid resources fulfilling the current needs of their population. A big need in central Illinois right now is food security, says Kim James, CFCI’s program manager.

Even before two Peoria grocery stores closed earlier this year, creating a so-called “food desert” on the city’s East Bluff and South Side, CFCI was working in partnership with the Peoria RiverFront Market to boost area families’ access to fresh fruit and vegetables. The Wholesome Food Fund, started in 2012, incentivizes those receiving SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) funds to spend them on healthy, locally grown foods at the RiverFront Market by doubling the value of SNAP dollars. Not only does it allow families to stretch their SNAP dollars, it also helps the local farmers selling produce.

In the program’s first year, nearly five times as many federal food assistance dollars were spent at the RiverFront Market compared to the previous year. “Food insecurity is a real problem,” adds James. “CFCI is working to create new initiatives in the 2018-2019 timeframe, and we are actively researching the best way to play an active part in the solution.”

Meanwhile, the foundation is working to promote two other recently created funds. The Local Jobs Fund will provide grants up to $2,500 for projects that can break the cycle of poverty by equipping people with skills to earn “significantly more than minimum wage.” The Arts Mean Business Fund provides grants up to $2,500 to support the generation of economic growth in the Peoria region through arts tourism, an increase in successful arts businesses, and greater community participation in the arts. “We manage over 450 different funds, and traditionally give out more than $5 million annually in competitive and donor-directed grants,” Roberts notes. “Making sure people understand exactly what we do and all of the positive ways we impact the community on behalf of our donors is key. Everything we do—every scholarship, every grant—I believe, is vital to making our community better.” iBi

To learn more about the Community Foundation of Central Illinois, visit communityfoundationci.org or call (309) 674-8730.

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