Photo of a Food Drive

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Neighborhood Networks served as rapid response hubs, providing food, PPE, and other essential resources to residents.

Transforming Places Puzzle Pieces Group

Public, private, nonprofit, and community partners come together to support the expansion of our Neighborhood Networks in the Southland.

Five years ago this week, my family and I were beginning the process of moving our two young boys from North Carolina to Chicago so that I could start my new role as President and CEO of United Way of Metro Chicago. To say we were excited would be an understatement! My wife, Emily, and I had spent much of our 20s in the city and had visited often with our boys. We loved Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods and cultures, access to Lake Michigan, and, yes, even the weather.

Having worked at United Way of Metro Chicago earlier in my career, I had some sense of what I was walking into. I knew Chicago was a caring city, with great corporate and community partners. I also knew that we had a strong foundation in place through our Neighborhood Network Initiative. That said, I also knew we had headwinds. A few months before I started, an article was published asking if Chicago needed a United Way. Before even walking in the door on the first day, I had heard a similar sentiment from multiple community and corporate leaders: “We are excited for you to come here and want you to succeed. We just aren’t sure we understand United Way’s value in today’s world.” This was tough to hear, knowing that the purpose of the organization you have been charged to lead is under question.

But these local leaders weren’t wrong. The percentage of people in the United States giving to charity had significantly declined and continues to decline. Locally, United Way of Metro Chicago had seen decreases in giving for nearly two decades. Additionally, our region remains one of the most challenged for economic mobility in the country, with Cook County ranking 96 out of the 100 largest counties. Clearly, we had work to do.

Luckily, even though our organization faced – and continues to face – real challenges, we are also a region that has amazing assets. From our vibrant neighborhoods, to incredible community-based organizations, to generous donors, we have people and institutions who want to make change for the better. We first saw this commitment when our friends at BMO stood with us to announce the largest donation in our history, $10 million to support our Neighborhood Networks. A few short months later, we faced an unprecedented global pandemic. But the spirit of our region stood strong. In just a few short months, together with The Chicago Community Trust, we raised and distributed more than $35 million to local nonprofits serving on the frontlines during the pandemic. The Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund was one of the largest COVID funds in the country.

Our progress continued with the launch of Chicago Connected, the largest expansion of digital access in the country, ensuring more than 100,000 Chicago Public Schools students would have access to free high-speed internet. A few months later, United Way of Metro Chicago was the lucky recipient of a substantial gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, bringing $25 million to our region. This investment, combined with increased support from other generous donors, allowed us to expand our Neighborhood Network efforts to 17 communities around the region, up from 10 just a few years ago.

While we were proud of the progress we were making, we were still hearing from far too many residents that navigating the health and social service ecosystem was far too complex. In fact, our region remained the only major city in the country that did not have a 24/7 2-1-1 helpline to connect residents with the services and support they needed. On January 27, 2023, all that changed. In partnership with United Way of Metro Chicago, the City of Chicago, and Cook County, 211 Metro Chicago officially went live. In the last eight months, more than 80,000 individuals have been connected to resources and support via calls, text, chat, and web searches.

Clearly, I am proud and grateful for all the progress that has been made over the last five years. It’s been a bumpy road for all of us, to say the least, but a few things have remained constant:

  • Our community cares and wants to see change.
  • We have amazing partners, donors, and advocates who do the work every day to improve our region.
  • Though we have our challenges, we also have real assets, and when we work together, united, we see results.

The real question for all of us, though, is what happens next? Does Chicago need a United Way? Someday, no. That’s the goal, right? We’re working hard now so that someday your zip code doesn’t determine your access to quality education, food, health care, and jobs. Someday everyone will have what they need to thrive. Until then, United Way is here and we’re committed to seeing this promising future, to making that future a reality. There’s a lot of work left to do. Let’s keep going.

Join us and help build a stronger, more equitable Chicago region.