Chicago’s Austin neighborhood is home to historic architecture, beautiful parks, stunning churches, and wonderful neighbors – and a lot of helpers. So many, in fact, that researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) found that many community groups and outside organizations were working on the same issues related to economic development, early education, and neighborhood safety. When the UIC researchers discussed their findings with neighborhood leaders in 2011, a new group was conceived to bring together various community assets: Austin Coming Together (ACT).
“We’re basically an honest broker,” said ACT Executive Director Darnell Shields. “When we first started, we set out to create more coordination, better connections, and more clear links between organizations and the community. That may sound really broad, but by better understanding and inventorying the great organizations doing great work here, we can all have greater collective impact. That’s the real purpose here.”
The number of member organizations has grown from about 10 to more than 60 during ACT’s six-year tenure. During that same time, the organization has tripled its staff and grown its budget by a factor of ten. This growth is in line with ACT’s 10-year strategic plan, which includes ambitious goals to enhance human services through coordination and recruitment; engage the community in comprehensive planning efforts; and organize around an emerging policy agenda.
“In order to achieve the goals of our plan, we need to invest heavily in the people who will serve as our conveners, connectors, and coordinators. Those people are going to need to operate and host our services in an appropriate space – and that’s where IFF comes in,” Shields said. “We see IFF as a partner to help us align our space plans with our strategic plans.”
IFF’s real estate team worked with ACT to create two space plans – one for achieving goals over the next three years, which calls for acquiring the building it was previously leasing from its incubator group; and another for the years beyond that, when it can expand or reconfigure that same space. The organization is purchasing and upgrading the building with the help of a $192,000 loan from IFF.
ACT’s new headquarters will function as a central hub for its 61 member organizations to network, share workspace, and host events and meetings. It will also house two of ACT’s member organizations in another example of nonprofit co-location.
“I’m really excited for the two-part plan. It guides our strategic discussion at the Board level and around fundraising to make sure we’re in the financial position to take on that development project down the road,” Shields said. “I love that IFF is our long-term partner in this.”