Creators Valaida Fullwood and Charles W. Thomas Jr. of NGAAP at Giving Back: The Soul of Philanthropy Reframed and Exhibited (TSOP) in Chicago
Spanning a wall of the Chicago Cultural Center is the definition of philanthropy: love of what it means to be human. In the center of the room, positioned in a semi-circle, are nearly a dozen sepia-colored photographs of Black men and women, each accompanied by a story about community, advocacy, and responsibility. These multi-generational stories from educators, business owners, and activists are part of an exhibit, Giving Back: The Soul of Philanthropy Reframed and Exhibited Chicago.
The multimedia exhibit highlights stories of philanthropy among Americans of African descent, pulling in images and narratives from the award-winning book Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists by Valaida Fullwood and photographer Charles W. Thomas Jr. The Artists’ Statement frames the exhibit as an illumination of “the human impulse to show compassion, to progress, to see fairness, to connect with others and to love.” Black philanthropy, reframed and re-positioned by Giving Back, takes many forms beyond the dollar. But at its center, it’s human- and heart-focused.
Several U.S. cities have hosted the exhibit, including Portland, Ann Arbor, Atlanta, and Cleveland. In August 2022, during Black Philanthropy Month, the exhibit debuted in Chicago, one of its largest markets. The Soul of Philanthropy Chicago (TSOP) seeks to empower “a new generation to recognize their influence and their responsibility to give back.” Jessyca Dudley, immediate past-president of Chicago African Americans in Philanthropy (CAAIP), notes that the exhibit “tells a story that isn’t often told.” Black people don’t often see themselves as philanthropists, and those outside the community may not realize how giving happens (and how it looks) in Black communities.
The exhibit uplifts Chicago’s legacy of giving and its multi-generational philanthropic leaders, highlighting educators, community advocates, and philanthropists like John H. Johnson, the founder of Johnson Publishing Company. The spectrum of giving, from working with youth in a classroom to opening a school, deepens and broadens the traditional narrative of philanthropy. Honorees include Essence Smith of SocialWorks Chicago, Dion Dawson of Dion’s Chicago Dream, and Jahkil Naeem Jackson, founder of Project I Am.
Visitors and supporters are encouraged to engage beyond the exhibit. As host of TSOP Chicago, CAAIP launched a Reinvestment Fund to raise and invest $250,000 in Black-led and Black-serving organizations in Chicago, and the exhibit will be gifted to a Chicago public school to remain on view.
A Legacy of Collective Giving
During the great migration, when African Americans left the South and moved to northern cities like Chicago, there was little institutional support to resettle and thrive. Black Chicagoans turned to one another, leveraging collective giving vehicles like mutual aid societies, churches, and fraternal organizations to meet the needs of their communities. Collective giving continues in present-day Chicago, and giving circles are at the forefront of change throughout the city.
The Soul of Philanthropy exhibit featured two giving circles hosted by the Chicago Foundation for Women (CFW): the West Side Giving Circle and South Side Giving Circle. These circles focus their grantmaking on supporting leaders and organizations that serve Black women and girls in neighborhoods on the city’s West and South Sides.
With Chicago’s history of segregation and discriminatory practices and policies, stark inequalities exist across the city, with wealth and resources concentrated in northern neighborhoods and Chicago’s suburbs. When Whitney Wade, Program Officer at the Chicago Foundation for Women and a South Side resident, was interested in joining a giving circle, she noted the established circles for more affluent parts of the city. To reach and resource smaller organizations, a giving circle on the South Side had the potential to do tremendous good. Whitney is a now longtime member of the South Side Giving Circle (SSGC).
In 2018, CFW and a group of committed founding members launched the SSGC. An innovative multi-generational and racial affinity circle, SSGC funds organizations and individuals. The circle is multi-generational by design. Jessyca Dudley, also one of the circle’s founding members, noticed that many giving circle memberships were trending older and wealthier. Lowering the monetary barrier to entry for women under 35 was critical for younger, emerging donors to lend their time, talent, treasure, and vital community ties to the circle. “There were so many women who were waiting for this opportunity,” Jessyca shares.
SSGC often awards organizations their first institutional grant, funding with the potential to shape an organization’s trajectory. Beyond the dollar, partner organizations receive support with capacity-building, fundraising, marketing and communications, and board development. Some grantee partners later receive larger grants from CFW, positioning them for more substantial gifts in the future.
The South Side Giving Circle remains one of the biggest circles at CFW and has awarded nearly $210,000 to organizations on the South Side. Now with nearly five years under its belt, the circle reflects on the future and sustainability of the work, pursuing opportunities for growth and partnership.
For Us By Us
Cody McSellers-McCray, a founding member of the West Side Giving Circle (WSGC), was new to giving circles but not philanthropy. At home and in her community, philanthropy was modeled by family, where love and relationships were wealth. When Cody was approached about joining a circle at CFW, she wanted to launch a circle for the West Side of Chicago, where she currently resides. As the board chair of a hospital foundation that planned to sunset in 2020, there was an opportunity to make an investment that would benefit the West Side for years to come. The foundation made a gift that would support the launch of the West Side Giving Circle.
The circle awards grants to organizations centering Black women and girls on the city’s West Side in four neighborhoods: Austin, East and West Garfield Park, and North Lawndale. For many of the circle’s members, this grantmaking is both personal and close to home. They live in the neighborhoods they serve and have a deep understanding of the community’s needs. The circle is committed to supporting Black-women-led organizations and is intentional with its application requirements to reduce the burden and expand accessibility for applicants.
WSGC awarded $20,000 last year, supporting three organizations. Now with more than 20 members, the circle is excited about its continued growth. Recently, another foundation approached the WSGC for a potential partnership opportunity that would grow the circle’s grantmaking and expand funding opportunities for its grantee partners. In the meantime, Cody looks forward to the upcoming grants cycle and the opportunity to connect with new organizations. She isn’t new to giving circles anymore, understanding and valuing the power of collective giving. “This work is for us and by us,” she notes.
To learn more about the South Side Giving Circle and West Side Giving Circle, visit Chicago Foundation for Women at https://www.cfw.org/giving-councils/.
The Soul of Philanthropy New Orleans will be on display at the TEP Interpretive Center from December 2023 to February 2024. Learn more about the exhibit here
Shannon Jeffries is a community-focused and multi-passionate leader working at the intersection of philanthropy, service and storytelling. She serves regional and national organizations, managing programs, projects, and partnerships that address issues of equity and justice in the education and nonprofit sectors.