Kimberly Britt, right, delivers meals to Alfredo Garcia at Hope House, a transitional living home, on Oct. 12, 2021, in Chicago. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

In July, the food service co-op ChiFresh Kitchen was running out of money for one of its initiatives. It had partnered with an urban farm to deliver free meals to those hit hard by the pandemic, but its founder Camille Kerr realized it would have to stop the deliveries if it didn’t get more money.

The food had been delivered to people who were unemployed and often unsure of how they’d get their next meal. Kimberly Britt, one of the company’s owners, remembers a line of children outside a Montessori school that stretched around the block in Englewood, a community with about 72% of its residents affected by food insecurity. They were waiting for ChiFresh’s white van to arrive with food favorites like pizza with chicken sausage or collard greens with mac and cheese.

Kerr called the schools and nonprofits they worked with to tell them that they would have to pause meal delivery. But the next day, she got a call from the impact investment group Chicago Beyond and learned that $20,000 was coming their way, no strings attached. It was “incredible timing,” she said. She called the organizations. “Never mind,” she told them.

Run by formerly incarcerated individuals, ChiFresh Kitchen is one of 26 Chicago organizations that have received money from Chicago Beyond. The money, $1 million of which has been distributed so far with $2 million still to go, is going to smaller organizations doing “hyperlocal” work that “often don’t get resources,” said Chicago Beyond founder and CEO Liz Dozier, also a former CPS principal.

The organizations were chosen by a “people’s assembly” of community leaders, whose experiences range from being retired principals to being social workers. There is no application process, allowing the money to get to organizations quickly. Some of the organizations they called thought “it was a spam call,” said Chicago Beyond’s Chief Strategy and Operations Officer Eva Liu.

The focus, according to Dozier, is in “trusting leaders to make decisions that are best for communities that they serve.” Chicago Beyond did this by making the money “unrestricted,” meaning the nonprofits have free rein to use the funds however they think is best.

For organizations such as ChiFresh Kitchen, the money made a difference as basic as allowing them to continue operating. Hood Heroes, started by counselor Jarvis Buchanan, aims to give young people on the South and West sides something meaningful to focus on during the summer. Homing in on teenagers’ own ideas about neighborhood beautification, Buchanan raised $20,000 through GoFundMe efforts in 2020 to pay young people to carry out their idea of collecting garbage around South Side neighborhoods.

Buchanan wanted to continue the work this summer but was worried it wouldn’t happen: “Do you think people are going to give $20,000 of their money again?” he thought at the time. Then $40,000 in funding from Chicago Beyond came through in July, and Hood Heroes employed nearly 60 students to clean up two more neighborhoods on the South Side.

For the Coalition on Urban Girls, previously known as the South Side Coalition on Urban Girls, the money hasn’t yet been put to use but plans are being made. CUG supports and sustain organizations that provide services for girls and do work around gender equity; the aim is to use the funding from Chicago Beyond to expand CUG’s capacity to help those organizations.

One of the plans is an event where girl-oriented nonprofits would be invited to set up in a parking lot or outside a church and put up banners with information about the organizations but also about COVID-19. Attendees “get to learn about girl-serving organizations close to you, and also COVID-19 education at same time,” said CUG president Brianna Lawrence.

The lack of restrictions around what CUG could use the money for allows the organization “to pull more people into the planning,” said Lawrence.

In the past, “the grants we received have been tailored toward a specific thing,” but the lack of regulations here “gives us flexibility, power and autonomy to be able to apply the funds where we need it most,” she said.

Chicago Beyond’s Liu acknowledged that the funding only touches a portion of Chicago’s nonprofit organizations. “There are so many more out there,” she said, adding that “it shouldn’t necessarily be a competition” between nonprofits to get funding.