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Community Foundation of Central Illinois' Mark Roberts touts grant programs to address food insecurity, job development

Mark Roberts, the president and CEO of the Central Illinois Community Foundation, says he likes to describe the philanthropic organization as "a charitable savings account" for the Greater Peoria community. CFCI is currently accepting submissions for grant programs targeting food insecurity and workforce development.
The Community Foundation of Central Illinois
Mark Roberts, president and CEO of the Central Illinois Community Foundation, says he likes to describe the philanthropic organization as "a charitable savings account" for the Greater Peoria community. CFCI is currently accepting submissions for grant programs targeting food insecurity and workforce development.

As president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Central Illinois (CFCI), Mark Roberts doesn’t hold back his enthusiasm for the organization’s purpose.

“We give away money, and it’s pretty enjoyable work,” he said.

Established in 1985, CFCI oversees numerous funds and grant programs as it strives to impact the community by financing worthy causes.

“The way I like to describe the Community Foundation of Central Illinois, most generically, is that we are a charitable savings account for the community,” said Roberts. “The idea is that we work with all kinds of members of the community, be they corporations, individuals, families, other nonprofits, whatever it might be.

“These people contribute money to the Community Foundation to establish charitable funds under the umbrella of the foundation, and then our job is to administer those, to invest them, to grow them. Then at the end of the day, we use them to make grants to benefit all kinds of great quality of life issues in our community.”

The Peoria-based philanthropic organization is aiming to address food insecurity and promote job creation and retention through a pair of grant opportunities currently accepting submissions.

Ending Hunger Together

The Ending Hunger Together program is in its fourth year of helping to offer better access to healthy dietary options, while the new Community Works program seeks to build a stronger and larger workforce.

“Every year, the Community Foundation would receive essentially the same hunger-related grants from the same organizations, essentially asking for the same need: more food into the emergency food system,” said Roberts. “We knew we needed to do something a little bit different in order to drive, perhaps a more systemic approach.”

Roberts said the key components to Ending Hunger Together include requiring multiple nonprofit organizations to work with each other, and placing an emphasis on health-conscious food options.

“The reality is that sometimes in the smaller food banks, these organizations that are really well-intentioned, but they tend to (rely) on whatever food they can get their hands on at that time, and perhaps it's not the healthiest food,” he said. “It's not that sometimes we all don't enjoy a cupcake, but that's not the kind of food we want our kids to be eating every day. So, I think the overall quality of the food that's in the system has been improved significantly.”

CFCI is currently soliciting initial proposals for the next one-year grant with a maximum award of $40,000, and community education and economic development being among the project objectives. Roberts said he’s always impressed with the creativity demonstrated by the organizations in their applications.

“The first grant we made had 19 different organizations or programs that had aligned up to collaborate and partner together,” he said. “Right off the bat, that was a victory, and it's been an excellent experience so far for the overall food system here in central Illinois.”

Community Works

Roberts said the foundation also is seeking collaborative initiatives to address job creation and retention for a one-year, $50,000 funding opportunity offered in the new Community Works program. He noted economic growth in the Peoria area hinges on investing in workforce development.

"It impacts almost everything else that we think of in the community,” he said. “So when we think about the challenges in the social service sector, in many instances these are people that don't have jobs today. More importantly, from a workforce readiness standpoint, we need to do a better job of preparing the people that we have to be the people that we need.

“So there's a lot of organizations working on this in the community, and there's a lot of disparate efforts around the community. Again, one of our intentions at the Community Foundation, through the Community Works grant is how do we help to align some of those organizations and some of those programs that are happening with the pot of money that we're going to put on the table for this program.”

Funding for the Community Works program comes from an estate gift of $3.9 million from Bob Gilmore, the late retired president of Caterpillar.

“Bob asked us to do three things with that fund: One, support the arts and culture; two, support general sort of social service things, which we do a lot of that already,” said Roberts. But the third was economic development and job creation and retention, which is not an area that Community Foundation had done a lot.

“So in July, we seated a panel of some of the absolute best minds within central Illinois about economic development, job creation, and all the things that come with that, and had a fascinating listening session. Then we stepped back as a board and as a staff and sort of synthesized what we learned that day, and ultimately came up with the Community Works program.”

Roberts said the nature of the endowed Gilmore Fund will enable the Community Works program to award grants each year, while providing some flexibility in how to distribute the $50,000 — whether it’s one project or one split among several proposals.

“It might be 50 $1,000 grants, or it might be 25 (of $2,000 each). We'll just have to see what kind of proposals are received and what our committees decide to fund,” he said. “In one way of looking at, $50,000 certainly is not going to solve all of the issues. But on the other hand, $50,000 is $50,000, and we've learned that by doing these kinds of very proactive grant-making initiatives through the foundation, organizations tend to band together and do some very creative and impactful things for that kind of money.”

Both new and existing programs are eligible for consideration. CFCI will host a virtual forum to provide more information on the Community Works from 8:30-9:30 a.m. Wednesday. Find more details and register at www.communityfoundationci.org.

Girls Investing In Girls

Another CFCI program through its Women’s Fund held its first Girls Investing In Girls workshop last month to teach young women the value of philanthropy.

“We brought 15 high school girls from four different high schools here throughout central Illinois to teach them about how to make good decisions about making grants because it sounds like it's an easy thing to do, right? You just hand out the money,” said Roberts.

“But the idea is really to get studious about the proposals that are submitted, really consider all of the options that are laid out there and then make good decisions about: if you have some money here to grant, how do you make the very best investment in the very best programming organization that you possibly can? I think it was a great eye opener from these young women, and I think they learned a lot.”

After working through the grant-making process, the workshop attendees awarded a $4,000 grant to the Peoria Public Schools Foundation for its pilot mentoring program for middle school girls.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.