UChicago students who sign on to help with projects for the South Side nonprofit Featherfist begin by going on a ride-along with the team that reaches out nightly to people experiencing homelessness. “They see what that side of the city looks like, and at the end of the night they’re astounded,” said Melanie Anewishki, Featherfist’s founder and executive director. “Then, we put them to work.”
The students collaborate with Featherfist through the Community Programs Accelerator at the University of Chicago, founded in 2014 by the Office of Civic Engagement to help community-based nonprofits strengthen their impact on the communities they serve. The Accelerator connects nonprofits with University resources, including technical assistance and grants plus consulting expertise from faculty, staff and students.
Featherfist, the South Side’s largest agency dedicated to eliminating homelessness, is one of the local nonprofits — along with Woodlawn East Community and Neighbors (WECAN), a provider of housing and supportive services, and Chicago Hyde Park Village (CHPV), which helps seniors age in place — using the Accelerator’s services in their work to help residents find and keep affordable housing. Over the last five years, the Accelerator has welcomed more than 2,000 people to its educational workshops, and has supported nearly 200 local nonprofits with consulting help from students guided by professionals and University faculty.
Featherfist joined in 2014 at the associate member level to receive project-based support for one year. The Accelerator helped Featherfist create a five-year strategic plan, revamp marketing communications, and improve fundraising strategies — “especially in showing us how we could present our data to better tell our story to funders,” Anewishki said, adding that she also found tremendous value connecting with other community-based human services organizations.
Featherfist is now part of the Accelerator’s core program, which provides customized, intensive support, including funding, for up to three years. A team of professional consultants, working through the Accelerator with the help of a student project manager, is currently helping Anewishki and her team build their capacity through leadership skills development and create a new strategic plan for the next three years.
Data drives decisions
When WECAN joined the Accelerator in 2014, founder Mattie Butler had one request: She wanted information about what had happened in the Woodlawn housing market since the crash of 2008. With funding support provided to the Accelerator by the Polk Bros. Foundation, Harris Public Policy graduate students helped design and implement a comprehensive research project to survey every parcel in Woodlawn and collect and analyze other property information that WECAN could use to inform its policy recommendations.
"We’re here to leverage the resources of the University for the community-based nonprofits of the South Side," said Ryan K. Priester, director of the Accelerator, "and in this instance, that meant giving WECAN access to the hard data they needed around housing in Woodlawn so they could think through their approach. More broadly, we meet nonprofits where they are to offer support that helps them strengthen their ability to execute on the vision they have for their communities."
WECAN’s recommendations for ways to help longtime Woodlawn residents keep their homes will likely include a centralized housing resource center, property tax relief, and legal assistance. Now a member of the Accelerator’s core program, WECAN is exploring ways it could serve as a housing resource center, and is revitalizing its board to help prepare the organization for future growth.
It takes a village
The WECAN team is especially concerned about seniors on fixed incomes, who are vulnerable to losing their homes because of high tax bills and costly maintenance of historic Woodlawn properties. Chicago Hyde Park Village (CHPV) began its Accelerator engagement in 2014 by commissioning UChicago College public policy students’ research into the demographics of the South Side’s senior population as a way to understand what services would be most valuable.
That project helped spark the creation of the SHARE Network, a partnership with UChicago Medicine and other organizations that provide older adults with resources for health and well-being, and has driven many more Accelerator–led collaborations with UChicago students and faculty. With that support, CHPV has implemented tools to benefit members — such as an online database of trusted contractors who charge fair prices for home repairs — and developed fundraising and growth strategies.
Since joining the Accelerator, CHPV has grown into an established nonprofit with a paid executive director and a vision for long-term sustainability that will help it remain a critical resource as South Side baby boomers age. "We were an all-volunteer organization when we started,” said CHPV founder Susan Alitto. “The Accelerator's services helped us build the capacity to transition into an organization with paid staff, which means that we're able to strengthen our services and plan for the long term.
“More than that, the Accelerator gave us confidence in the importance of our mission, and gave us credibility in the community: People reason, "if the University thinks this is a worthwhile effort, maybe I should join."