Tuesday, October 20, 2009

City Year Chicago: Not Your Mother's Volunteer Program

City Year Chicago

36 South Wabash, Suite 1500
Chicago, IL 60603
www.cityyear.org and www.cityyear.org/chicago

The first thing I saw as I walked into the City Year Chicago office was a sign that welcomed me personally. What a great way to start! I was greeted by Joe Choinski, a second year City Year corps member, who is a leader of one of the City Year Chicago teams. Joe began by giving me a tour of the City Year Chicago office. He proudly showed me a photograph of then Senator Barack Obama beaming while wearing a bright red City Year Chicago jacket. Joe also allowed me to observe an energetic and enthusiastic group of corps members planning upcoming events and activities. I later learned this group was one of 13 different City Year Chicago teams. City Year is a national AmeriCorps program that began in Boston in 1988 and Chicago in 1994. The program is open to 17-24 year olds. Those chosen commit to ten months of service while receiving a stipend as well as scholarship money for college. City Year Chicago works to create teams that are diverse. The corps members on these diverse teams are then able to act as role models by working together successfully with those who are different. This year, (2009-2010) City Year Chicago has 125 corps members.

After the tour, Joe and I were joined by Johnny Barr, Director of External Relations for City Year Chicago. During our conversation we covered everything from specific details about the program to relationships between the corps members to concerns about the safety of corps members. Johnny and Joe were incredibly engaging, their passion for the organization clearly fueling their enthusiasm. By the end of our conversation, I was truly sorry that I had long passed the age where I could sign up to be a corps member.

City Year is in 20 U.S. communities, including newly added Milwaukee, which will be fully functional for the 2010-2011 school year. City Year is also in Johannesburg, South Africa. City Year is an organization that provides public schools with an ongoing presence of near peer role models-service providers who are near in age to the students. They are eager to create a presence in a community so that City Year Chicago corps members become established as good and important figures in the community. (That certainly explains the red jackets. They are VERY easy to spot in the community.) Corps members establish meaningful relationships with members of a community, particularly youth, and are then able to be role models of positive behavior. Programs are currently aimed at students in elementary school through high school, and include one on one literacy tutoring, after school/spring break programs, youth leadership and community transformation. Their new initiative, “In School and On Track” is aimed at critical ages in students’ academic lives, to help lessen the drop out rate. Programs are during the school day, after school and on weekends, depending on the age of the students and which program.

City Year Chicago is currently partnered with 12 schools in Chicago, including seven that are part of the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL.) These AUSL schools are called schools of excellence and are showing great promise for turning around the Chicago Public School system. The City Year program is holistic, utilizing The Whole School, Whole Child service model created by City Year in collaboration with education leaders. This means they deal with the whole child, working on attendance, behavior and academics.

Corps members engage in significant training before beginning their time in the community. They are even taught how to stay safe in the neighborhoods they serve. There are frequent opportunities to connect with other corps members and staff throughout the day. And as a testament to the impact of participation on corps members, there is a very active City Year alumni group

Like every other person and organization, City Year Chicago has been affected by the economy. Fundraising and attracting corporate and foundation sponsors is certainly more challenging in this financial climate. However, a positive effect of this economic downturn has been a dramatic increase in the number of applicants to the program. Jobs are scarce and so AmeriCorps programs provide wonderful opportunities for younger job hunters. Before the economy plunged, City Year Chicago received twice as many applicants as they accepted. This past year they received 5 times as many applicants as they accepted. That may be one of the few silver linings to this economic cloud.

Fun facts about City Year Chicago: (Actually, this stuff is pretty extraordinary for a bunch of 17-24 year olds to accomplish.)

• 876 corps members have graduated from the program, providing 1.5 million hours of service to Chicago. (WOW!!!)

• Literacy tutoring has been provided for 2,856 students, with average students in 2009 advancing their reading skills by a complete grade level.

• 77.3% of teachers in 2009 stated that corps members increased their students’ time spent learning.

• 95% of 2009 Young Heroes (leadership and service program for 6th-8th graders) say they made friends with people from different backgrounds.

City Year Chicago is truly in the trenches making the world a better place for large numbers of Chicago’s children. The work they do is making a measurable difference for so many.

President Barack Obama described City Year this way:

“Who’s the next generation that is going to lead us and inspire us and build an America we can all be proud of? When I look out at all of the City Year corps members who have been giving so much of themselves for a cause that is so much larger than themselves, I think I have an answer to that question.”

If you are interested in volunteering with City Year Chicago, check out their events calendar: http://www.cityyear.org/chicago_ektid1507.aspx

If you are interested in supporting the work of City Year Chicago, check out their ways to give: http://www.cityyear.org/chicago_ektid1519.aspx

And if you know anyone young enough to participate in this extraordinary experience, tell them to apply right away. And if they hesitate, tell them they are doing it for entire generations that were born a few years too early to participate. Although unfortunately, I cannot speak from experience, I am sure they will never regret their decision to participate!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Better Information Produces Better Decisions-So Contact MCIC!

Metro Chicago Information Center (MCIC)

17 North State Street Suite 1600
Chicago, IL 60602-3294

Several months ago I was exploring the internet for organizations in the nonprofit world when I came across the site for the Metro Chicago Information Center (MCIC.) Although I was a strong math student as a kid, I was never one for the structure of statistics and processing different kinds of data. But as I read the description of MCIC, I did a little happy dance. (Well, not really-figuratively!) Here was an organization that gathered data, analyzed that data and provided all kinds of useful information and it was a nonprofit organization. At this point, I began to understand just how expansive the world of nonprofit organizations had become.

As I began to explore the website I developed a profound appreciation for MCIC and their value as an extraordinary resource. The website includes information that is difficult to find anyplace else without great effort. Additionally, I would have a deep concern about the accuracy of what I might find through other sources. On the home page of the site, there are links to maps, strategic planning resources, data on topics such as population, models on topics such as economic change in neighborhoods and a long list of publications and reports on a variety of topics. Much of the information requires membership but there is no charge to be a member.

I definitely wanted to learn more about MCIC. I contacted the organization and soon met with Joan Frankel, MCIC’s Senior Consultant for Health and Human Services. Joan told me that MCIC has 15 full time staff, but depending on the number of projects they are working on, their numbers can grow to 20-22 staff with the addition of consultants. MCIC generally works on projects that are either very quickly completed or span 18-24 months. They work with 75-80 organizations each year. Although the economic downturn has had some impact, many nonprofits are now applying for foundation and grant money to pay for MCIC services. The organization does no advertising and has survived for 20 years through word of mouth.

Whether looking at the website, their printed materials or speaking to Joan, the message comes through that MCIC is working to help organizations collect and utilize information to optimize their work. The organization was created in 1990 from a nucleus of an idea at the Commercial Club of Chicago. This statement on the MCIC website briefly summarizes the mission of the organization, “…MCIC works from a fundamental philosophy that better information produces better decisions.”  In other words, MCIC is able to collect and analyze information that provides a clearer picture of what is actually occurring. How often do nonprofit organizations make decisions based on what they think is probably happening or create strategies based on conventional wisdom, which may or may not be correct? Through data collection (qualitative and quantitative) and analysis, focus groups and creating maps, MCIC is able to create a complete picture of what is happening in the field, within a topic or neighborhood. MCIC staff are also skilled at taking that information and creating a strategic plan for the future.

MCIC works with organizations and institutions that primarily focus on the following five areas:

1. Arts, Culture and Tourism

2. Community and Economic Development

3. Financial Institutions

4. Government and Education

5. Health and Human Services

I found the list on their website labeled “Custom Research and Consulting Services” particularly helpful. Below is that list, some of which are commonly understood.  I have provided examples for any that are not:

Policy Analysis/Quality of Life Studies
From the website, “…to benchmark, track, and evaluate the effect of existing services and/or recently implemented social policy.”

Community and Regional Studies
To learn about the external market at the neighborhood, regional or national level

Organizational Studies
To strengthen organizations

Database Development
Identifying, compiling and analyzing

Key Informant Interviews
People with special knowledge in the area of interest

Face-to-Face Interviews


Focus Groups

Community Building Forums

MCIC is one of those community treasures that doesn’t sit in the spotlight of nonprofit innovation. But they are clearly a resource that is of extraordinary value to people working to make our community better. They are doing the work that allows the rest of us to be even more successful at what we do, whether we are at a nonprofit organization, a governmental agency or affiliate, or an individual trying to do our part. Their skills at data collection and analysis in a variety of forms and their ability to help an organization utilize strategic planning certainly
strengthen any organization’s impact. And their website is a tool that is an invaluable resource. I strongly encourage you to pass their information on to anyone who might have need for MCIC’s services.