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Embracing Community Voices: The Unique Grant-Making Process of the Evanston Community Foundation.   

In the realm of community foundations, we like to say that “if you’ve met one community foundation, you’ve met one community foundation.’ Evanston’s community foundation is just as unique as the community we serve! Read on to see what actually sets the Evanston Community Foundation apart from our fellow foundations (hint: it’s YOU). 

A Community-Centered Approach: 

The Evanston Community Foundation embraces a bottom-up philosophy, actively seeking input and feedback from the community. We recognize that the people who live and breathe the community are the best-equipped to identify its most pressing issues and opportunities. Through town hall meetings, surveys, and open dialogues, the Community Foundation engages with diverse stakeholders, including residents, nonprofits, and businesses, to understand our priorities and aspirations. This participatory approach fosters a sense of ownership, ensuring that the funds invested align closely with the community's vision for a better future. 

Authentic Impact: 

The key differentiator of the Evanston Community Foundation lies in our genuine commitment to making a tangible impact. By involving the community in the grant-making process, the Community Foundation ensures that its investments are responsive to the unique challenges and opportunities that exist within Evanston. The foundation's decisions are not based on assumptions or external agendas but rather on the lived experiences and aspirations of those who call Evanston home. Let’s catch up with someone who knows this dynamic very well, Karli Butler, Director of Community Leadership at Evanston Community Foundation:  


Akilah: You recently gave a compelling presentation at the 2023 Council on Foundations Conference held in Denver, CO this June on community-grantmaking. Can you describe what that was like- what the overall energy in the room was?  

Karli: It was amazing. People were lined up to hear about the Community Foundation’s community-led grant-making process. So much so, that there was standing room only. It was surreal because participatory grant-making is all I know working at the Community Foundation so, to see so much curiosity and bewilderment around the idea was fascinating. I assumed it was more commonly used.  

Akilah: So, what exactly is participatory grant-making? 

Karli: Participatory grant-making is a community led decision-making process we use at the Evanston Community Foundation. It’s an approach to philanthropy that yields decision-making authority to the very people who are impacted by funding decisions. 

Akilah: And, what does that look like?  

Karli: We have two grants committees, one for each of our open application cycles (E-Town Innovation Grants & Nonprofit Growth & Sustainability Grants). These committees are made up of 12 – 14 members, two of whom are board members. We source committee members from Leadership Evanston alum, Advocates for Action, and other community leadership programs. Members are diverse in race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, age, educational background, and expertise (among other things).  

Our Program Officers, Jenny Valdes Del Valle and Jenna Beltrano, do an amazing job of fostering a culture of inclusion and belonging by being transparent about the process, building community within the group, and being available to answer any questions or concerns that come up. These committee members are tasked with reading and rating the applications based on specific criteria shared with them. And over the course of three meetings, they discuss the applications and ultimately put forth their recommendation to the board.  

Akilah: What would you say has been the overall benefit to this approach to grant making?  


Karli: This approach not only fosters a stronger sense of community ownership but also enhances the likelihood of creating meaningful, sustainable change. It is community-centered and shifts power dynamics.  


Akilah: And as someone who has participated and helped steward this process, how would you describe a typical grant-making committee meeting?  


Karli: It’s an amazing process! It’s complex and nuanced. It requires really hearing others and respecting others’ perspectives. It’s awesome to see so many people take genuine interest in their community. It gets intense at times, but there is always great dialogue and a focus on creating change that will leave an impact for now, forever, and for everyone.  


Akilah: How can community members get involved?  


Karli: At the request of our committee members, we hold in confidence their names and participation. Evanston is small and we don’t want them to be stopped while out in the community and have to report to anyone personally.  This allows them to do their work with fidelity to the community-led grantmaking process.  



In a world where top-down decision-making often prevails we, the Evanston Community Foundation, sets itself apart by placing the power back into the hands of the community we serve. By actively engaging with residents and stakeholders, the Community Foundation’s grant-making process becomes a powerful catalyst for positive change, driven by the authentic voices and desires of the community. This unique approach is a testament to our unwavering commitment to community empowerment and inclusive decision-making.