Ellen Ray and Rob Pabon will share the compelling story of how a dynamic leadership team completely reoriented an established, conservative, yet outmoded institution into a thriving, cutting-edge, emergent player in the social impact sector. Founded in 1991, Chicago Cares has been the city’s premier engine for volunteer mobilization for nearly 30 years. The organization has a $4 million budget, nearly 40 employees and mobilizes 20,000 volunteers annually.
Starting in 2016, Chicago Cares found itself in the midst of sector and cultural changes that it was unprepared for. The social impact sector was focusing more on outcomes over outputs, and both foundation and corporate donors were reducing their support due to the organization’s inability to articulate impact effectively. Isolated acts of interpersonal generosity were no longer sufficient as the sector sought to move the needle on large, intractable social problems like violence and poverty.
National movements like Black Lives Matter were also changing Chicago’s narrative around equity, forcing the city and its institutions to grapple with our long history of racial, economic and social segregation. Addressing systemic inequity requires everyone stepping into the part they can play – including organizations like Chicago Cares. In this changing landscape, Chicago Cares found itself passé and anxious, with diminishing relevance to the city’s social impact landscape and change efforts. Together with a committed Board of Directors, Chicago Cares’ executive team realized quickly that what the organization needed was to be dynamic and adaptive – not comfortable and stable. This moment in time required a new leadership strategy focused on innovation, strategy and change management.
What has transpired since is an inspiring story of intentional, and sometimes painful, organizational change, complete with the associated risks, rewards, pitfalls and victories. Chicago Cares’ story (what we affectionately call “turning the Titanic”) is an important case study for nonprofits across the country who are facing changing political and funding landscapes while grappling with their own future relevance. Organizations – even 30-year-old, well-established, and well-funded organizations – can pivot when necessary to become the dynamic, adaptive organizations that our cities and country need.