09/13/2012 08:14 pm ET Updated Nov 13, 2012

Bricks and Mortar Not a Requisite for Mission

According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, there are over 55,000 registered nonprofits in the state of Illinois. With the countless organizations having to shut their doors, every nonprofit leader must ask themselves: does my innovation truly require its own infrastructure?

As the Chicago Tribune reported recently, The Eleanor Foundation, a nonprofit focused on helping single mothers attain economic security, will soon wind down its stand-alone activities and transfer nearly $7 million in assets and all of its programs to Chicago Foundation for Women. Together, the two largest women's funds in Chicago with over 140 years of collective history, will come together to form a strategic alliance aimed at increasing the economic security of Chicago women and their families.

The courage of the Eleanor Foundation must be commended. Well in advance of this transition, the Eleanor Board looked at the challenging fundraising environment and the escalating needs in the community. Their decision was not made in a time of crisis, and leadership had the time to think strategically and weigh all possible options. In the end, the Eleanor Foundation decided they would need to act if they were to secure their legacy for decades, not just for the next few years. Or, as Eleanor Foundation's Board Chair Nick Brunick says, "We are joining forces because together, we can do far more to help female-headed households reach the middle class than we can alone."

Since our founding in 1985, CFW has invested in over 100 emerging and innovative nonprofit organizations within their first three years of existence. Currently, 75 percent of these organizations are still thriving, and many have become institutions in their communities, providing necessary and unparalleled services for women and girls in need. Some, however, have folded and in some cases left a gap in services in their wake due to lack of preparedness and a hasty closure. It is clear that not all innovative and fresh ideas warrant their own staff, their own lease, or their own 501(c)3statuses, but the work may be critical and needed in the community. This is certainly a difficult conversation to have - but one I have regularly with our grantees.

CFW seeks to facilitate consolidation and other cooperative efficiencies among our grantees that can lead to stronger, more effective organizations. For example, CFW provided support for Amigas Latinas to share space and other resources with another group, Affinity Community Services, for the specific benefit of lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer people. The result is a strategic alliance in sharing basic infrastructure. Now, CFW is not just talking the talk of strategic alliances, along with the Eleanor Foundation we are leading by example.

The nonprofit sector as a whole needs to establish a new way of thinking that can stand the test of the oncoming wave of economic, social and educational challenges facing our community. CFW and The Eleanor Foundation made this important step, propelled into action due to the escalating need for women in this city to attain economic security: Nearly 15 percentof women live below the poverty line and in single mother households, the rate rises to 38.2 percent, according to the Shriver Center . According to Eleanor Foundation research, female-headed households earning less than a living wage number over 300,000 in the Chicago region and they are one of the Chicago region's fastest-growing populations. Single mothers are working harder and are better educated than they have ever been, and yet, they continue to fall behind economically. By combining the Eleanor Foundation's collaborative network of programs and assets with CFW's established fundraising platform, the Eleanor Network at CFW will raise the profile of this important population and generate even greater support for innovative programs that help address this need in our community.

The Eleanor Foundation deserves the highest praise for putting the needs of Chicago women and their families far above the need for bricks and mortar. They should be regarded as pioneers who are "in it" for the right reasons and, above all, realistic. Chicago, and especially those who depend on the nonprofit sector, needs more of this type of leadership.