Philanthropy isn’t moving as fast as its most forward-thinking leaders might hope — Marguerite Casey Foundation CEO Carmen Rojas once told me she envisions a world where foundations no longer need to exist. But a section of philanthropy is increasingly thinking about more ways to put power and decision-making into the hands of leaders on the ground.
This has been a long-running theme in our ongoing series on the many forms of family philanthropy, with families like the Disneys and the Sobratos thinking about ways to reshape old philanthropic practices. Chicago Beyond, a grantmaking nonprofit that invests in organizations and community leaders seeking to change the lives of young people in Chicago, was also founded in this spirit.
Backed by billionaire couple Mark and Kimbra Walter, Chicago Beyond was started in 2016 by Liz Dozier, a former star principal who turned around a troubled school on the South Side of Chicago. Dozier said she wanted to change the paradigm of how we attempt to help struggling students. So instead of asking students “What’s wrong with you?” she asked: “What’s happened to you?”
I recently sat down with Dozier and other Chicago Beyond brass to find out how they connected with the Walters, Chicago Beyond’s work toward systemic change, and how the organization is pushing other donors and changemakers across the country to think differently about philanthropy.
It started with a school
The daughter of a teacher, Dozier started working in Chicago Public Schools, first as an elementary school teacher, then a high school teacher, then a principal, including at Jones College Prep in Downtown Chicago. She also worked as a turnaround strategist at the now shuttered Harper High School, which was once featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show, calling attention to the lack of vital resources like computers.
Then, in 2009, she started as a principal at Christian Fenger High School on the South Side of Chicago. “It was one of the most rewarding jobs I think I’ve ever had in my entire life, but also one of the hardest,” Dozier said.
In late September of that year, a fight between students from two different neighborhoods broke out and a sophomore honor roll student, Derrion Albert, was beaten to death with a wooden plank on his way home from school. A cellphone video of the incident went viral, reverberating across the city and the country.
“When I first got there, we had about 1,500 young people. There was about a 20% dropout rate every year, and a little over 300 arrests inside of the school building every year. We had a 40% graduation rate. It was failing by every measure,” Dozier said.
Still, even in the face of grim odds, she believed that she could turn things around. She fought to secure money and resources for her kids, and at times, leaned on philanthropy to do so. However, she also started to sense the inherent power imbalance involved in this process, even if donors were well-meaning.
A few years in, Dozier’s efforts started to foster some changes at Christian Fenger, leaning on strategies like smaller class sizes, after-school mentorship, restorative justice programs, and anger-management training. Dozier has spoken at length about why police do not belong in schools and a CNN docuseries highlighted her work.
“We were gaining traction. Arrest rate had gone down by about 90%. Graduation had started to increase,” Dozier said. And yet, when she applied for grants, she felt donors were still insistent on directing where grants would go, rather than allowing her and the community to guide these decisions. In one instance, the funders of a school-based group counseling program insisted on randomly accepting students to the program, rather than allowing school staff to select youth they felt were best fit.
Standing up a nonprofit
Dozier’s second act began in 2016 and is deeply informed by her experiences at Christian Fenger. As she tells it, billionaire Chicago couple Mark and Kimbra Walter reached out to her and they quickly found an aligned mission. “It actually wasn’t a hard sell. It wasn’t even a sell. The Walters selected me. I don’t come from philanthropy. But I believe, intuitively, they wanted a different approach. They believed in the value of people who are proximate [to the issues] leading the work,” Dozier said.
The Walters’ philanthropy focuses on education, social equity and conservation through the Walter Family Causes (TWF Causes). Mark is the CEO of investment firm Guggenheim Partners, which has over $300 billion in assets under management. He is also a part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Forbes puts his net worth at $5.3 billion. Kimbra is an attorney who serves on several boards of trustees.
TWF Causes states that it “seeks opportunities to build sustainable models of philanthropy that create permanent capital from direct ownership of stakes in businesses or business operations and that fund the causes, reducing the need for continuous philanthropic investment.” The Walters are steady backers of a handful of social impact organizations outside of Chicago Beyond, including OneGoal, which aims to boost college access for students from low-income families, and The Academy Group, which works with students starting in fourth grade and supports them throughout their academic careers and beyond.
With support from the Walters, Chicago Beyond takes an impact investment approach to help in the fight for youth equity. Dozier and TWF Social Impact began working with Chicago Public Schools to develop a pioneering blueprint for trauma support. The $24 million initiative is centered on comprehensive and holistic healing and has been shaped by ideas and feedback from hundreds of teachers, staff, students, administrators, families and community partners.
So far, Chicago Beyond has invested more than $40 million in community-led initiatives and individuals. The Walters are the nonprofit’s sole funders, but Eva Liu, Chicago Beyond chief strategy and operations officer, says that part of their model has been to think about ways to influence other funders to better support young people.
“We want to help them show up in a much more equitable manner, whether that’s through initiatives based on our learnings or actually getting foundations to connect to nonprofits in our community,” Liu explains.
Initiatives and research
By “learnings,” Liu is referring to Chicago Beyond’s research projects aimed at helping its community partners grow the impact of their work. One 2019 paper, “Why Am I Always Being Researched?” was born out of Dozier’s experiences working in schools. She noticed that programming that got a “gold star” from well-heeled academic institutions was more likely to rake in philanthropic dollars and take hold in schools.
A few years ago, Chicago Beyond was conducting a study alongside the University of Chicago, when a young participant turned to the team and asked plainly, “Why am I always being researched? Why is my community always being researched?”
The organization ended up asking that question to over 200 people so that Chicago Beyond could really think about how to do research in a more equitable way. To her surprise, that guidebook really took off and resonated. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation even uses it to inform its K-12 research guidelines.
Besides trying to disrupt the way research is conducted, Chicago Beyond also invests in organizations including Healing Hurt People Chicago, a hospital-based youth violence intervention program, and Storycatchers Theater’s Changing Voices program, which employs young people impacted by the juvenile justice system to write their lived stories then and perform them.
Chicago Beyond also developed a model called Whole Philanthropy. “As an antidote to the typical philanthropic power dynamic, Whole Philanthropy is grounded in justice. Justice is not just an abstract state of liberation that exists ‘out there.’ We enact justice every day, in each encounter with others,” states a document outlining the model.
Rather than an “us and them” framework, the model focuses on creating deep connection between partners, and critiques the “sharp lines” that typically exist between grantmakers and grantees. The model also challenges typical approaches to philanthropic metrics, favoring an embrace of the messy and complex, instead of fixating on outcomes that are easy to measure. Whole Philanthropy also emphasizes centering the voices of those closest to the work, including young people, rather than leaning on researchers and outside observers.
Expect these principles to continue to drive the Chicago nonprofit going forward.
“I feel like we’ve almost lost the humaneness of philanthropy. It’s become all about numbers and metrics. It’s not that those things are inherently bad. But we’ve sort of weaponized them to keep people in particular buckets or to tell particular stories,” Dozier said, adding, “I think we are really beckoned into something different — the idea of being in relationship with each other to make our communities thrive.”