Monday, December 2, 2019

Our Chicago. Our Opportunity to Build a Brighter Future for Everyone

Will You Help?

Every person who lives here deserves a chance to reach for their dreams, but many people in our region experience more than their fair share of challenges. Every day, the local news is full of stories of gun violence, struggling schools, and a lack of good jobs. These challenges are real, and they disproportionately affect some communities more than others. But together, we can write a different story.

When you donate to the McCormick Foundation Communities Program, you help expand opportunities for every Chicagoan, regardless of ZIP code, race, or income. 100% of your donation goes directly to local nonprofits that are working to make a difference in their own communities — from Little Village to Englewood, and beyond.

Over the last year, thanks to your contributions, the Communities Program has continued to expand its support in communities where there is both great need, and great potential. We’re working together with local organizations, community leaders, and donors to help ensure every child gets a quality education, every adult has a pathway to stable employment, and every family has access to health and wellness services. But this work is far from done. Your support is essential to realizing the vision we all share for a Chicagoland where everyone can thrive.

Chicago Jobs Council, HEART, and Erie House are just a few of the many local organizations that receive grants from the McCormick Foundation thanks to generous support from donors like you. This upcoming holiday season, I hope you’ll help create more life- changing opportunities for people throughout our region with a gift to the McCormick Foundation.

Chicagoland can’t truly be a great place for any of us to live until it’s a great place for all of us. We appreciate your donation and look forward to working with you in the months ahead to build a brighter future for everyone who calls this region home.

To find out more or make a donation, visit our donation page.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Our Chicago. Our Opportunity to Pursue Career Dreams

Will You Help?

Chicagoland will be a great place for us to live when it is a great place for all of us. Unfortunately, many people in our region face barriers that hold them back from a bright future.

Your support can help kids like Xavier overcome these challenges. Not long ago, Xavier struggled with reading. At his Little Village elementary school, 95% of students come from low-income households and test scores fall far below national averages.

Xavier got the extra support he needed when he started attending a literacy program at Erie House, a nonprofit community center in his neighborhood. There, Xavier works one-on-one with volunteer reading tutors. Now, he's reading at his appropriate grade level and exploring new opportunities for his future. He dreams of becoming an animator and creating stories about heroes like those in his favorite books.

Xavier’s story is just one example of the many opportunities you can help unlock with a donation to the McCormick Foundation. When you give to the McCormick Foundation, we’ll match your gift at 50 cents on the dollar and cover all expenses. Then, we’ll pass 100% of these funds on to local nonprofits like Erie House that are creating life-changing opportunities for people like Xavier.

Your donation makes a difference. We truly appreciate your gift, and thank you on behalf of all those who benefit from your generosity. This holiday season, let’s help make Chicago a land of opportunity for everybody, regardless of ZIP code, race, or income.

Make a donation here!

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Chicago's Digital News Needs

by Andres Torres, Program Officer, Democracy

In Chicago, we have the benefit of dozens of outlets at our fingertips. According to a recent analysis by News Revenue Hub and Impact Architects, there are almost 100 digital news outlets in the Chicago region. This estimate doesn’t include the many broadcast and print-first publications that continue to serve the region. In an era of precipitous decline in the number of newsrooms across the country, confirming the continued presence of so many outlets in this 2019 “news census” is significant.

Continuing Challenges

Though well-populated, our news landscape is not a healthy one. A survey of several of the digital outlets reveals how endangered this ecosystem is. Helpfully, the survey pin-points some primary obstacles that, if addressed, could improve sustainability and help fill some of the growing information gaps in our region. Below are two of the challenges and related opportunities to support reader revenue and infrastructure modernization that caught my attention, but you can also read the full report for yourself.

Capitalizing on Reader Revenue

There's still money in advertising
There’s always money in the banana stand, George Bluth Sr. counseled his son, Michael, in Arrested Development. Perhaps there will also always be money in advertising? Of the 23 media companies that responded to our survey, 60% said print advertising makes up more than half of their revenue. It helps that most of the digital properties surveyed also had print publications, for which the value of an ad remains higher than on digital properties.

I’ve been assured by several local print publishers who also maintain active websites that there is still enough advertising revenue to assure a future for printed products and subsidize digital news. And there are some in academia who agree with this prognosis: Prof. Iris Chyi of the University of Texas characterizes newspapers’ embrace of digital as a struggle towards inferiority. She and others have found that most news companies reported considerable advertising revenue over the last decade and continue to do so, in most cases eclipsing their reader revenue.

Reader revenue is underdeveloped
Let me be clear. I think news outlets need all the revenue they can get and if advertising remains a revenue stream, that’s great. I also believe there is no denying that reader revenue is an untapped resource that needs to be mined. The outlets we surveyed agreed.

In fact, 43% of outlets surveyed were experimenting with some type of membership program, 65% received some type of donations, and 70% offered subscriptions. However, for almost all the outlets surveyed, these reader revenue streams are dwarfed by advertising.

The challenge to increasing reader revenue does not appear to be a lack of familiarity with the concept or a belief in its value. Instead, the survey suggests that reader revenue is underdeveloped because of limited technical and financial capacity to change systems built to support a different media business model.

Missing and misaligned support for reader revenue
Local media companies need capital and technical assistance to create capacity and develop the skills to tap reader revenue. As one publisher wrote, “to assemble a team to test [audience revenue growth strategies] and provide sufficient runway for the test to play out would require a capital infusion that seems very difficult to justify, given the level of risk involved.”

Another publisher recognized that with “declining ad revenues in print and small revenue from digital, but with a considerable and loyal audience with critical information needs, it is important to diversify our revenue options and to update our model.” However, the publisher was unsure how to develop an audience growth strategy and capitalize on readers, especially with an existing revenue team focused on selling advertisements.

The survey revealed strong interest in developing a new business model, but it was often accompanied by frustration with a lack of financial resources and expert support to do precisely that.

Modernizing News Systems

“Can Local News Websites Shift From Annoying Their Readers to Serving Them?” asked Jeannette Hinkle on Medill’s Local News Initiative Blog in March. The article underscores the connection between digital infrastructure, user experience, and, ultimately, reader revenue (the subtitle is pretty clear: “Getting Readers to Pay Will Require More Attention to User Experience”). The article highlights a particular piece of digital machinery as the crux of many issues: the content management system (CMS). Our survey found the same to be true.

As the report author points out, several local media organizations use a CMS that can’t keep up with the needs of a modern digital newsroom. Their customer relationship management (CRM) systems are similarly outdated, with some newsrooms keeping reader data in Excel spreadsheets, as opposed to a database like Salesforce, which limits the newsroom’s ability to design targeted engagement strategies to segment readers and provide customized messaging to meet their interests or convert readers into revenue supporters.

Without a modern, reader-centered digital infrastructure, local newsrooms will continue to be limited in their ability to evolve to provide the information their audiences need and raise the funds to support their journalism.

Next Steps

The McCormick Foundation commissioned this survey to inform our work in journalism. We wanted to understand how well positioned local newsrooms are structurally to provide high-quality civic information across the Chicago region.

We learned that a considerable of number of newsrooms have made the transition to digital and several compelling digital natives have joined the landscape. These include for profit and non-profit, English and non-English, urban and suburban publications.

We also learned that a real opportunity exists to build the capacity of these newsrooms. As newsrooms around the region struggle to secure resources to meet their communities’ information needs, there is a high risk of growing geographic, thematic, and demographic gaps in coverage.

Already, this survey is showing clear gaps on Chicago’s West Side and across the suburban areas of the region. We are particularly sensitive to the risk these modernization challenges present to media serving communities of color and communities preferring news in a language other than English. Recent studies from the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY on the State of the Latino News Media and from Democracy Fund on American Indian Media, African American Media, and Hispanic Media have documented the particular challenges ethnic media face.

Alongside other research, this recent report by News Revenue Hub on Chicago’s digital news landscape provides helpful priorities, particularly on funding infrastructure modernization and building communities of practice, that are actionable for philanthropy.

The Analysts

News Revenue Hub, with its partners at Impact Architects, worked with us this Spring to survey digital outlets in the region and recommend opportunities for investments. We commissioned the Hub to lead this study because, as a fundraiser that helps outlets across the country tap into reader revenue, they know a thing or two about what to look for when assessing an outlet’s long-term prospects for sustainability.

We are thrilled the Hub brought in Impact Architects. The firm has done extensive work at the intersection of media and philanthropy to understand the state of journalism, how its evolving, and the wisdom of the paths it’s taking. (I am an avid follower of their work and recommend some of their past articles and reports.)

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Democracy Program Grant Opportunity

The essentials

Through 12pm CT on Tuesday, October 1, 2019 the Democracy Program is accepting Letters of Inquiry (LOI) to support programs and organizations working in our three Focus Areas: Strengthen Local Journalism, Engage Youth Civically, and Invigorate Public Institutions. On our website, you can find a brief summary of each Focus Area. You can also read more details about each Focus Area on the Foundation’s blog (see a full list of articles below). Grant requests may be for work in any Focus Area and should be over $50,000.

How to apply for a grant

Visit the Democracy Program’s “Apply for a Grant” page where you will find our funding criteria (e.g. you must be a 501(c)(3)nonprofit), a timeline for our review process, and a link to the online portal through which you must submit your LOI.

What's an LOI?

The LOI is the first stage in our two-stage application process for evaluating grant requests. The first stage of the process serves as an introduction for the Democracy Program staff to your organization and the work you propose to undertake during the grant period. The LOI provides helpful information on your:

  1. Organization: your mission, history, core activities, and financial health
  2. Outcomes: the change you want to achieve during the grant period and why it's needed
  3. Equity Impact: how your approach to your work will integrate community voice and help reduce racial/ethnic disparities in the region
  4. For applicants seeking a program grant, we also ask about your:

  5. Strategy: the activities you will undertake to achieve your outcomes
  6. Rationale: what evidence you have that these activities are the right approach

We collect this information through an online portal. Via this portal, you’ll fill out some questions about the administrative aspects of the grant (e.g. the grant amount and term, organizational tax status, application contact person). The core of the application is the Stage 1 Narrative, a short-answer questionnaire that addresses most of the questions listed above. You will need to download this form, enter your responses, and upload the completed form to the portal. Finally, we ask you to upload a copy of your organization’s annual budget, and if you’re requesting program support, a copy of your program budget.

What do we look for?

As we read LOIs, we try to answer a couple questions of our own:

  1. Strategic Fit: How might the proposed partnership and work advance the Democracy Program’s mission and strategy? To what extent does this work address the inequities we see in journalism, youth civic engagement, and public institutions?
  2. Evidence: What evidence do we have that the proposed work can succeed? What data support this approach and does the organization have the experience, capacity, network, and committed partners to achieve the desired outcomes.
  3. What can we learn? Given our limited resources, we are forced to pick among many worthy projects. Successful LOI applicants enter a months-long review process, generally because they have a strong strategic fit, offer compelling evidence, and hold the strongest promise to help the fields in which we are working advance.

There are many aspects of a successful application that can prompt curiosity and we encourage applicants to consider how their organization’s perspective, approach, network, and other features distinguish it, but also position it as an additive piece of the constellation of partners we support in our three focus areas.

Next Steps

If the Democracy Program reviews your application and determines that there is a compelling rationale for a prospective or continued partnership, you will receive an invitation to submit additional application materials. An invitation to the second stage of the application process is not a commitment to fund the proposed organization and/or work. Instead, it’s a commitment to learn more about your work so that the staff can determine if there is sufficient evidence to bring a final recommendation to fund to McCormick’s Board of Directors. Ultimately, the Board votes to decide on all funding decisions.

Learning more

To learn more about the Democracy Program’s strategy and how you might be able to support its advancement, visit our website and read our recent articles about our strategy:

Strengthen Local Journalism

Vision: Creating an information-rich region

Strategy 1: Telling the untold stories

Strategy 2: Enhancing collaboration, community engagement, and entrepreneurship

Strategy 3: Investing in human capital

Strategy 4: Defending press freedom

Engage Youth Civically

Invigorate Public Institutions

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Invigorate Chicagoland's Public Institutions

The third and final pillar of the Democracy Program’s strategy centers on invigorating public institutions with an emphasis on inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability to Chicagoland residents (see previous posts on youth civic engagement and local journalism).

By inclusive we mean representative and considering the needs and interests of Chicagoland’s diverse communities. Transparency entails a presumption of and deep commitment to full public access to information pertinent to public policy and governance. Accountability relates to institutions’ prioritizing public trust and responsibly using information from the media, watchdog groups, and the public at large to improve performance.

Chicago City Hall

We believe that local institutions will produce policies, governance, and constituent services shaped by, and responsive to the region’s diverse communities by developing high-capacity civic leaders. Also critical to this end is improving the transparency and accountability of public institutions. Finally, we must deepen Chicagoland residents’ participation and representation in democratic processes and ensure inclusion of underrepresented communities through both policy and practice.

We seek to develop civic leaders representative of the communities they serve, who cultivate constituent participation in elections and public policy, and advocate for and implement inclusive policies. Currently, the Democracy Program is evaluating the extent to which existing civic leadership programs meet these goals. Ideally, public institutions will develop leaders internally, prioritizing public accessibility, responsiveness to constituents, and construction of inclusive policies.

In our efforts to ensure accountability, transparency, and effectiveness of public institutions, we partner with organizations that possess deep knowledge of government practice, paired with authentic forms of community engagement, to empower civic action.

Turning to efforts to deepen participation and inclusion in public institutions, we currently have investments in three priority areas: expanding Chicagoland residents’ participation and representation in elections and Census 2020, improving the accessibility of public institutions through inclusive policymaking processes, and providing pathways to citizenship and protected status for local immigrant communities.

We are committed to modernizing and ensuring the integrity of election processes to ensure more representative participation and ballot security. Census 2020 is only nine months away, and we are part of the Illinois 2020 Count Me In Coalition led by Forefront to ensure a complete and accurate count for Illinois. Our grant to Forefront supported sub-grants to nonprofits statewide for outreach to hard-to-count constituencies (HTCs). The Coalition’s efforts were critical to the state’s recent $29 million appropriation for Census outreach.

We opposed inclusion of a citizenship question on the Census form for fear that it would inhibit participation among HTCs. Although it appears that the question will not be placed on Census forms, the damage has already been done in eliciting fear within immigrant communities. Therefore, we endorse expanded engagement with these constituencies to achieve a complete count.

Participation in government beyond elections is critical to a healthy democracy, and several current partners specialize in engaging residents in the policy making process. For example, Participatory Budgeting (PB) Chicago leads residents in city wards and schools through a process where they identify and vote upon infrastructural needs. Already present in nine wards and a growing number of CPS schools, PB Chicago anticipates continued expansion in the aftermath of this spring’s municipal elections. Beyond PB, the Democracy Program is exploring other emerging innovative methods that public institutions can use to better engage Chicagoland residents and underrepresented communities.

The Democracy Program strives to ensure that Chicagoland’s immigrant communities are mobilized to take full advantage of existing opportunities to secure citizenship and protected status. More broadly, we seek partnerships to further engage our state’s immigrant and refugee populations in the democratic process. In the long term, we are supportive of federal comprehensive immigration reform, believing that it is beneficial for both immigrant communities and society at large.

By developing high-capacity civic leaders, ensuring institutional accountability, transparency, and effectiveness, and deepening participation and inclusion in our local democracy, we will ensure that Chicagoland public institutions are inclusive, transparent, and accountable to the communities they serve.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Early Education Takes the Red Carpet

Here is an update from the last Insights Newsletter highlighting the recent premiere of the documentary “No Small Matter”.

Years in the making, the documentary No Small Matter premiered in Chicago June 20 to a sold out crowd of statewide early childhood leaders and educators at the Gene Siskel Film Center. No Small Matter aims to engage broader audiences in the effort to strengthen both access to and quality within our early childhood system in order to better prepare young children for school success.

The McCormick Foundation, along with other foundations locally and nationally, have supported the development, completion, dissemination and engagement strategy in the wake of the film’s release. The feature-length documentary features humorous cameos by Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster, agonizing scenes of parents struggling to find quality care for their infant that they could afford, and the heart-wrenching decision of a beloved preschool teacher to leave the classroom for a more self-sustaining job as a bartender.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker kicked off the premier with remarks that reaffirmed his own commitment to bolstering Illinois’ early childhood system in the coming years. “I believe to my core that every child should get quality child care and quality education, no matter the color of their skin, no matter the income level of their parents, no matter what zip code they live in,” said Gov. J.B. Pritzker. “I want Illinois to lead the nation in early childhood education and childcare and I won't stop until we get there.”

Cornelia Grumman, Director of the Foundation’s Education Program, moderated a panel discussion following the film with Deputy Governor for Education Jesse Ruiz, Co-Director Greg Jacobs and former Preschool Teacher Rachel Gianni, featured in the film but now working at the Chicago Children’s Museum.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot issued a proclamation declaring June 20 “No Small Matter Day” in Chicago.

Film producers created accompanying tools to help make parenting easier, action steps to use the film to champion early learning, and encouragements that providers, houses of worship, community centers, agencies, advocates, educators and others host their own screenings.

No Small Matter was co-produced by Kindling Group and Siskel/Jacobs Productions.

Careers for South Side Residents

Guest blog by Becky Raymond, Career Pathways' Executive Director

The Chicago Citywide Literacy Coalition (CCLC) has had strong roots on the South Side of Chicago. Many founding coalition members were South Side providers. In 2010, when CCLC did a landscape scan of literacy providers in Chicago, there were 12 providers on the South Side.

Since the 2010 scan, there has been a steady decline of adult education programming available on Chicago’s South Side. Particularly during the State Budget Impasse of 2016 and 2017, there was a steep decrease in programming and services among our base members south and west of the city. Although the need is still high — roughly 250,000 individuals that would benefit from adult education — the lack of services continues to decrease.

To address this decline in services and serve the persistent need, CCLC has launched the South Side Career Pathways Collaborative. They have identified assets, engaged community voices (both program participants and providers), built a common agenda and connected programs to each other to create a coordinated career pathway system for South Side residents. Based on this extensive community input, in the fall of 2019, CCLC will staff a Career Pathways Navigator on the South Side to help residents connect to social services and find programs. This Navigator will also connect programs to each other, with a goal of helping providers build their capacity. The overarching goal of the South Side Career Pathways Collaborative is to expand the work of the providers and increase the number of individuals receiving services on the South Side.

USO Launches New Veterans Program

Guest blog by Justin Miller, Pathfinder's Program Manager

Transitioning from military to civilian life is a distinct challenge faced by our nation’s service members and their families. While there are many impressive organizations that provide services for transitioning military, two-thirds of service members are not effectively connecting with these resources. In 2017, USO launched the USO Pathfinder Program nationally to help service members and their families navigate the challenges of transitioning over a 24-month period.

The hallmark of the USO Pathfinder Program is a comprehensive support network that includes access to a Pathfinder Scout, a trained case manager who works directly with the transitioning families and connects them to the services and support they need. The USO Pathfinder Program focuses on connecting them to eight key areas of service, including employment, education, financial readiness, housing and family strength and wellness. In addition, participants have access to the USO Mobile App, which provides resources and access to a Scout in real time. The App allows program participants to view their customized selection of services and resources 24/7 and create their own transition roadmap all on their smart phone.

In Illinois, the USO Pathfinder Program is unique due to the large population of National Guard and Reserve service members and their spouses who are in a constant state of transition. More than 70% of military deployed since 9/11 are National Guard and Reserve, and USO of Illinois is working to ensure Guard, Reserve and their families have access to the Pathfinder Program throughout the state. This month will mark the largest deployment from Illinois in a decade with more than 350 Guard members called up to be deployed.

“The USO is a trusted presence for our military, supporting them from boot camp to deployment to separation for nearly 80 years,” said Justin Miller, USO Transition Program Manager. “USO Pathfinder works to reduce the friction of transitioning and help streamline the process of reintegrating into civilian life.”

Service members and their families can learn about the USO Pathfinder Program online, at any USO Center or Program throughout Illinois. Service members and their spouses can also access services by calling 312-777-3333 or going to

New Restorative Justice Court in North Lawndale

Opened in August 2017 in the North Lawndale community, the first ever Restorative Justice Community Court (RJCC) is an innovative collaboration between community-based service providers and the Circuit Court of Cook County. It aims to address the vicious cycle of mutually reinforcing problems: mass incarceration, crime and community violence, mistrust between the community and the criminal justice system, and the mismatch between the adult justice system and the developmental capacities and needs of emerging adults. Research has shown that this population is less future oriented, more susceptible to peer influence and risk-taking and more volatile in emotionally charged settings especially if they suffered childhood trauma. The Court takes this distinct stage of life into account by applying restorative practices to address root causes of behavior while also focusing on accountability for wrong doing through open dialogue between the victim, perpetrator and the community through peace circles and harm repair agreements. The RJCC relies heavily on its community-based partners to provide the necessary wrap around services to carry out the model effectively. The Court’s intention is to offer participants an off ramp out of the system that ultimately influences their life trajectory away from further criminal justice involvement.

Eligible participants are between the ages of 18-26, who reside in the North Lawndale community, and have plead guilty to nonviolent felonies charges. At their bond hearing, the defendant must be recommended by the presiding judge, prosecutor and the defense attorney for diversion to the RJCC instead of the traditional justice system. In its first year, the court saw 73 individuals, 45 of whom currently have active cases. Twelve participants have completed the court and 16 were either rearrested, transferred back for noncompliance or transferred for administrative reasons. The McCormick Foundation is in its second year of supporting the evaluation of the RJCC being conducted by Adler University. This is critical to understanding if the court is having an impact on stopping the cycle of young adults in and out of the system and if the model can be replicated in other neighborhoods in Chicago and across the country. As is the case with any pilot, there have been many challenges and lessons learned in the first year of operations, most notably those arising from the difficult but necessary trust building that is taking place between the community of North Lawndale and the criminal justice system to create a functional court that meets the expectations of each.

Krewasky Salter leads First Division at Cantigny Park

The Robert R. McCormick Foundation and Cantigny Park recently named Krewasky A. Salter, Ph.D., executive director of the First Division Museum in Wheaton.

Salter, a U.S. Army Colonel (retired), brings more than 34 years of experience to the museum, with 25 years gained in active military duty. He served as a senior staff officer at the Pentagon before retiring from the military in 2010.

Most recently, Salter was a guest curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). He curated the museum’s inaugural exhibition, Double Victory: The African American Military Experience. The exhibit opened in late 2016. He is also serving as curator of an upcoming exhibition, We Return Fighting: The African American Experience in World War I, scheduled to open in December 2019 at the NMAAHC.

“Krewasky’s experience as an Army officer, teacher and scholar of military history and museum curator, made him an ideal choice for this leadership role,” said David Hiller, McCormick Foundation president and CEO. “We’re delighted to have him on our team at Cantigny.”

Salter succeeds Paul Herbert, who retired in December. His appointment comes less than two years after the First Division Museum completed a comprehensive renovation. The update, part of the park’s ongoing Project New Leaf, enables visitors to experience the proud history of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division — the “Big Red One” — in exciting new ways through cutting-edge exhibits and storytelling technology.

A Florida native, Salter earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Florida where he was a Distinguished Military Graduate, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Florida State University. He also holds a Master of Strategic Studies from the Air War University. He taught Military History at the United States Military Academy, West Point; Military Strategy at the Command and General Staff College, Leavenworth; Military Leadership at Howard University, Washington, D.C.; and African American History at several other institutions as an adjunct professor.

Salter was a contributing author and advisor to three publications of the National Museum of African American History and Culture: Dream A World Anew: The African American Experience and the Shaping of America, Volume #5 Double Exposure: Fighting for Freedom and Many Lenses: The Buffalo Robe. He also wrote The Story of Black Military Officers, 1861–1948, and served as associate producer and senior historian for the Army-sponsored PBS documentary, Unsung Heroes: The Story of America’s Female Patriots. Salter has appeared on “CBS This Morning” and is featured in the Netflix documentary, Medal of Honor. He serves on the Army Historical Foundation Executive Board of Directors.

Illinois General Assembly Advances #CivicsInTheMiddle with Bipartisan Supermajorities

This spring, legislation to require a semester of civics within grades 6, 7, or 8 (House Bill 2265), passed the Illinois General Assembly with bipartisan supermajorities in both chambers. It moves next to Governor J.B. Pritzker’s desk for final approval.

Four years earlier, lawmakers required a semester of civics in high school for the graduating class of 2020 and beyond. House Bill (HB) 2265 drives the same high-quality civic learning practices down to the middle grades, with parallel language infusing instruction on government institutions, discussion of current and societal issues, service learning, and simulations of democratic processes into the new course beginning with the 2020-2021 school year.

Keys to the successful “CivicsInTheMiddle" legislative campaign included:

  • Our statewide network of educators and their students making their voices heard in the General Assembly, filing nearly 900 electronic witness slips for the bill in committee and reaching out directly to their Representatives and Senators as it moved to the floors of the respective chambers.
  • Strong organizational support for HB 2265 from the private, nonprofit, and civic sectors, rallied by McCormick Foundation President and CEO David Hiller.
  • Favorable media coverage, including strategically-placed letters to the editor and timely endorsements from The Rock Island Dispatch Argus and the Rockford Register Star.
  • A proven track record of implementing the high school requirement, with more than 1,100 hours of professional development provided to 8,200-plus teachers since October 2015.
  • A promise to make middle school civics a funded mandate through a three-year, privately-funded $3 million plan ($1 million annually) to support middle school teachers, schools, and districts to incorporate a civics course in grades 6, 7, or 8.

As HB 2265 moves to Governor Pritzker’s desk by June 22, you can voice your support for the legislation by contacting him via both e/mail and phone. Upon arrival, the Governor has sixty days to sign or veto HB 2265, so please act today.

Governor Pritzker’s Contact Information

Office of the Governor
207 State House
Springfield, IL 62706

Phone: 217-782-6830 or 217-782-6831

Email contact form

Turning to presumptive implementation of middle school civics, we currently have a survey in the field to assess the needs of Illinois middle school social studies teachers and administrators. The results, combined with our high school experience and evaluation results, will further shape our initial plans.

Current highlights include:

  • Ongoing teacher professional development opportunities, both in person and online, will be offered in partnership with civic education nonprofits and institutional partners, including universities and regional offices of education.
  • We are especially excited about a new partnership with the Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida to develop high-production learning modules for teachers centered on proven civic learning practices. Participating teachers will earn microcredentials in each practice. We anticipate the first module, focused on discussion of current and controversial issues, to launch this fall.
  • Illinois Civics Teacher Mentors have been central to our high school course implementation efforts, and we intend to continue the program with modifications to account for lessons learned and the unique needs of middle schools.
  • As was true of our high school efforts, we will partner with the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) to evaluate the impact of our teacher professional development offerings and, reciprocally, the fidelity of middle school course implementation. At the end of the implementation period, we will also assess the impact the course has on students’ civic development, measuring growth in knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Supporting Youth Civic Development

This article is written by Program Officer, Sonia Mathew, and introduces the Democracy Program’s work in youth civic learning.

In my three years at the Foundation, I have had the privilege of working with the Democracy Schools Initiative, which has strengthened schoolwide civic learning and engagement throughout Illinois. Illinois Democracy Schools are high schools recognized for consciously promoting civic engagement by all students, focusing intentionally on fostering participatory citizenship and placing an emphasis on helping students understand how the fundamental ideals and principles of our democratic society relate to important current problems, opportunities and controversies. Since 2006, 74 high schools have been recognized throughout the state.

Our work to “Engage Youth Civically” builds upon the important foundation that Democracy Schools have created to ensure that our young people are informed, actively participate in their communities, and have healthy civic dispositions. It is our goal for schools to support youth in their civic development through the equity and quality of civic learning experiences and organizational supports that sustain democratic practices in schools. Over the past year, we have worked to redefine Democracy Schools indicators and created a new assessment rubric that will be launched statewide in August. This strategic redesign of the Democracy Schools Initiative is shaping the integration of our grantmaking with key elements of Democracy Schools, where grant partners will be able to support the needs identified from Democracy Schools.

Our first strategy supports teachers to strengthen the proven practices of civic learning (Foundational Civic Knowledge, Discussion of Current and Controversial Issues, Simulations of Democratic Processes, Service Learning/Informed Action, and Extracurricular Activities) that connect with the lived experiences and identities of students. Teachers also need support to better integrate media literacy skills with these proven practices of civic learning. This support for teachers can occur both through external providers as well as through the Democracy Schools Network. This strategy is one that directly addresses inequities that exist with the quantity and quality of civic learning experiences in school, as teacher professional development ensures that our educators can help cultivate the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that our students need to be effective and engaged citizens.

Our second strategy supports school leadership to advance a commitment to the civic mission of schools, dedicating resources to sustain the vision and ensure all students have equitable access to civic learning. The McCormick Foundation has developed an Administrator Academy to support K-12 administrators implementing the new Illinois social science standards and civics course requirements, and the Democracy Schools Network has convened administrators for intentional professional development. As public schools were created with the purpose of promoting civic ideals, this important work with administrators supports schools to restore their civic mission, which has unfortunately been deprioritized. Supporting school leadership ultimately leads to schools being transformed into democratic spaces.

Our third strategy is to promote student voice in schools both through representation and student media programs. One current partner in this work is Loyola University, who has partnered with Senn and Sullivan High Schools on Chicago’s north side (both Democracy Schools) to operate a storefront news bureau called the RogersEdge Reporter, where high school and college students report hyper-local news in Rogers Park and Edgewater. With less than 1% of CPS high school students enrolled in a journalism class, partnerships like this provide an invaluable resource for schools to strengthen scholastic journalism and promote student voice. Additionally, when there are multiple avenues for student representation in schools, students have further opportunities to develop their civic dispositions. Students are truly practicing democracy in these environments and this positions them to continue these practices into adulthood.

Our fourth strategy is to create partnerships to build democratic school climates and implement Illinois’ school discipline law, Senate Bill (SB) 100. Promoting a positive school climate is very much connected with academic achievement and correlates with building the civic capacities of our students. It also addresses many of the opportunity gaps that exist in schools. SB100 was passed in 2015 with the purpose of reducing racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions, emphasizing restorative practices instead. Our work in this area directly meets the implementation needs of this important law by supporting teachers, administrators, and student leadership.

Our final strategy supports national and statewide field-building efforts to strengthen youth civic learning and engagement. On a national level, the CivXNow coalition has developed a national nonpartisan strategy that establishes civic education as a priority in preserving American democracy and supports the implementation of effective policies and practices to ensure that students engage in high quality civic education for generations to come. At the state level, the McCormick Foundation has been advocating for the passage of a Middle School Civics bill and plans to mobilize support for professional development for educators to meet the demands of this bill.

These investments in school-based civic learning opportunities will promote equitable access and stronger civic engagement outcomes for students, connect educators with the lived experiences and identities of students, and transform schools to be more democratic spaces. If you work supports these strategies in the Chicagoland area, we invite you to participate in an open application process for grants over $50,000 to engage youth civically with a deadline of October 1st.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Repelling Attacks on Press Freedom

This article is the fifth in a series, written by program officer Andres Torres, introducing the Democracy Program’s work in journalism. Read our prior posts to learn about our goal to create an information-rich region and our three other strategies to support this goal: telling the untold stories, enhancing collaboration, engagement, and entrepreneurship, and investing in human capital.

The McCormick Foundation’s commitment to defending press freedom originates with our establishment. As Robert R. McCormick wrote in his will, he hoped his charitable trust would use his bequest “to assist in repelling any attacks upon the right of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.”

He recognized that informing the public, the central responsibility of the press, carries risk. In the U.S., the First Amendment to our Constitution sought to mitigate this risk and provide the American press a protection from censorship to which the English press was vulnerable.

Over two centuries since the First Amendment was ratified, informing the public remains a challenged practice. Sometimes these obstacles are evident, such as government action to prevent publication of information. The U.S. government famously tried to do this during the Vietnam War when it went to the Supreme Court to prevent the New York Times and the Washington Post from publishing the “Pentagon Papers,” classified government documents about the war. In 2017, Steven Spielberg dramatized this historic victory for the press.

Yet, orders of prior restraint are not just historical practice. In just the past few months, ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Sun-Times have been prohibited from publishing information they uncovered in the course of their reporting. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, an order of prior restraint is “relatively rare,” but especially serious because it prohibits an organization with no connection to a case from publishing information it independently collected.

Prior restraint is just one of myriad legal challenges journalists face in the course of reporting. Denials of access and chilling statements can stymy an investigation at its outset, while private defamation suits and subpoenas for a journalist’s notes and sources can place a punishing burden on reporters and their outlets after stories are published.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker highlights recent threats to press freedom, including chilling statements, denials of access, orders of prior restraint, and physical attacks on journalists, but these reports are indicators of a potentially broader current legal risk to journalism. My colleague at the Democracy Fund, Estizer Smith, lays out in a recent piece a concerning description of how mounting public and private assaults on journalism are coming at a time when it is at its most vulnerable financially, politically, and socially. These threats include disturbing action that is reported upon, as well as insidious public and private assaults that we don’t yet know of or understand.

A committed defender of press freedom, McCormick famously funded, out of his own pocket, a case cited by the Supreme Court in repudiating the government’s claim against the Times and Post. Chicago Tribune reporter Ron Grossman recently reminded readers of McCormick’s ties to the precedent-setting Near v. Minnesota, noting that so important was this 1931 Supreme Court verdict affirming “the primary need of a vigilant and courageous press, especially in great cities” that an excerpt from the majority opinion was etched into the wall of the Tribune Tower lobby.

Against this backdrop of public, private, known, and unknown threats to press independence, and building on the Foundation’s longstanding work in support of press freedom, the Democracy Program is committed to continuing to support organizations that defend the press, such as the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Student Press Law Center, and, locally, Citizen Advocacy Center and the Better Government Association. Their efforts are important, but we recognize the threats are evolving and news outlets’ capacity to withstand them, especially locally, are weakened.

Therefore, in executing our fourth journalism strategy, our first priority is to better understand the types of supports local outlets need. We will then use this knowledge to structure additional interventions that will help ensure local conditions continue to support a vigilant and vigorous press that can meet the information needs of all our local communities.

In the meantime, the Democracy Program is accepting applications through June 15, 2019 from nonprofit organizations that believe their work helps advance our goal to defend press freedom. We are also accepting applications for work supporting our other three journalism strategies, which you can learn about on our website and read more about on this blog.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Investing in Human Capital

This article is the fourth in a series, written by program officer Andres Torres, introducing the Democracy Program’s work in journalism. Read our prior posts to learn about our goal to create an information-rich region and two of our strategies to support this goal: telling the untold stories and enhancing collaboration, engagement, and entrepreneurship.

Much has been written about the challenges of being a journalist in today’s media environment. Resources are scarce, advancement opportunities limited, the public’s perception sour, and the outlook bleak. For the sake of our democracy, however, we need people to thrive in this industry. Therefore, we are investigating how to support those who persist in their service, especially women and people of color, whose voices need to be elevated if journalism is going to reflect and resonate with the residents it must serve.

When I started at the McCormick Foundation in 2017, I embarked on a listening tour to learn from reporters at various stages of their careers what they needed to succeed in their work, and what obstacles they were facing. I heard how legacy newsrooms have been left with limited capacity to provide the professional development, legal, editorial, and other supports they had offered in the past. Meanwhile, though the number of nonprofit newsrooms has been growing steadily over the last decade, their individual capacities to withstand threats of litigation, much less support deeper dives on stories, was limited.

Through my conversations with many staff reporters, I began to connect with freelancers from whom I learned the unique struggles of working independently. I remember one reporter describing the precariousness of stringing together a month’s rent from gigs paying far less than $1 per word, which seemed to, sadly, be a lofty standard.

Despite the constraints, the reporters with whom I spoke were producing great journalism. I say this not to minimize their challenges, but as evidence of the potential return an investment in human capital could have. Unfortunately, philanthropy is not well placed to mitigate all the pains, but a few issues might present an opportunity for philanthropic intervention.

Investing in Deeper Dives

In describing our first journalism strategy, I shared an interest in supporting organizations and initiatives telling the untold stories. There is also an opportunity to complement institutional supports with individual supports. Type Investigations, the Fund for Investigative Journalism, the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowships, and the McGraw Fellowship for Business Journalism, to name a few funds, attest to the value of individualized supports to help reporters turn unexplored ideas into high-impact stories. We are still listening, learning, and considering how we might support reporters in their work locally and we welcome input.

Expanding Access to Editing and Mentorship

The contraction of the media industry has taken its toll on the ranks of editors. In many newsrooms, fewer editors are juggling more projects leaving them less time to work with reporters. Ensuring reporters and their stories blossom requires partnership, from editors and from mentors in the industry. Some organizations are responding to this need at a national level, such as the Online News Association and Investigative Reporters and Editors. We are interested in possible local approaches to address this challenge.

Providing Exposure and Enrichment

For many years, the Foundation has supported partners, such as The Poynter Institute, to develop and deliver trainings that offer local journalists tools and help them develop the skills and deepen the knowledge they need to report effectively. Trainings have been consistently well attended and well rated and we look forward to continue working with partners locally and nationally to bring accessible and relevant professional development opportunities to the region. We always appreciate recommendations from local journalists on the type of training they are seeking.

Next Steps

There are many obstacles to creating a robust, diverse, and resilient local talent pool. We have identified a few opportunities for further exploration. Over the next year, we will continue to consider how the Foundation might best leverage the tools at its disposal to provide journalists in the region, especially women and people of color, access to the support and training they need to explore broadly and dive deeply.

In keeping with the Foundation and the Democracy Program’s values, we believe our future work must focus on addressing the racial, ethnic, and gender disparities in investment and access to resources in the newsroom. To meet our program’s goal of closing the civic empowerment gap and serving under-resourced communities, we expect our work to support newsrooms that commit to equitably provide resources and create opportunities.

In the meantime, the Democracy Program is currently accepting applications from nonprofit organizations that believe their work helps advance our goal to increase the racial and ethnic diversity and the capacity of reporters working locally. We are also accepting applications for work supporting our other three journalism strategies, which you can learn about on our website and read more about on this blog.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Enhancing Collaboration, Engagement, and Entrepreneurship

This article is the third in a series, written by program officer Andres Torres, introducing the Democracy Program’s work in journalism. Read our prior posts to learn about our goal to create an information-rich region and our first strategy to support this goal: telling the untold stories.

In my conversations with people in local media, I have heard many compelling ideas for how to improve the process of developing and telling our region’s stories. Some of these ideas have been tested, others have yet to be attempted. In the Democracy Program, we hope to support innovative activities with the promise to set the practice of local reporting on a more sustainable path. Specifically, we are interested in work that invites partnership, engages the region’s residents, and experiments with new solutions.


To optimize limited resources. To leverage complementary skills. To extend reach. To augment impact. Our partners in media cite numerous reasons for informally and formally collaborating with each other. From cross-platform, multi-outlet, polylingual publishing partnerships to informal peer editing exchanges, collaborations are yielding dividends, and we are excited by the benefits further collaboration might unlock. Benefits to audience trust, to the bottom line, and to our region’s democratic health are all potential outcomes. Despite the benefits, we understand that building the trust and structures to execute successful collaborations can be resource-intensive, which presents an opportunity for us to draw on our role as grantmaker and convener to facilitate greater collaboration in the Chicago.

Community Engagement

The collaborations that we believe are critical are not just those between newsrooms, but between reporters and the people they serve. This can be a challenge in a region that is diversifying and in which people of color make up nearly half of the region’s population, though they made up less than 17% of newsrooms in 2017. But the cost of not genuinely engaging residents is too high, not just to journalism’s bottom line, but to the sustainability of our democracy.

Less than a quarter of Chicagoans say they have ever communicated with a journalist, according to a recent study by the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin. This figure is even lower on Chicago’s South Side where only 17% of residents have ever communicated with a journalist, compared to 30% of the city’s North Side residents. Seeing these statistics, it is hard not to wonder at the impact differential engagement has on trust in media and news outlets’ sustainability, not to mention to level and quality of information all residents have to engage in our democracy. We believe more, and more regular, engagement is needed in journalism and we seek partners who are committed to engaging residents before, while, and after they report their stories.


Embracing engagement and committing to collaboration will require updating the ways journalism works. This will require new outlooks, tools, and, perhaps, new organizations. With the pace of change in journalism, it’s difficult to predict how today’s solutions might apply to tomorrow’s situations. Tomorrow will surely bring new challenges and hopefully present new opportunities. In either case, we believe entrepreneurial thinking is needed to sustain and strengthen journalism. We welcome ideas for how we might move forward together.

Our Role

In the Democracy Program, we will work to identify and empower outlets, and the partners that support them, to be collaborative and engaged. We will also continue to work with universities and other organizations researching how to shift the way journalism works and collect and share the insights they bring. To this end, we look forward to continuing to convene and connect our partners to advance our shared learning and inform our respective work.

The Democracy Program is currently accepting applications from nonprofit organizations that believe their work helps advance our goal to enhance collaboration, engagement, and entrepreneurship. We are also accepting applications for work supporting our other three journalism strategies, which you can learn about on our website and read more about on this blog.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Telling the Untold Stories

This article is the second in a series, written by program officer Andres Torres, introducing the Democracy Program’s work in journalism. Read our prior post to learn about our goal to create an information-rich region.

In 2015, 15 locomotives operating in five Chicago railyards were upgraded. There are likely hundreds of locomotives operating at any given time in our region, so are 15 new ones significant? To some, including residents living near those railyards, they might have been. The government invested almost $20 million to upgrade the old engines because they were releasing over 7.5 tons of particulate matter and almost 200 tons of nitrogen oxide annually. The overhauls cut emissions by about 75%, comparable to taking about 10,000 cars off the road.

In 2014, concerned citizens noticed healthy trees being cut down in their neighborhoods. There are often worthwhile reasons for taking down live trees, but these residents were unsure. They brought their concerns to a local environmental organization that investigated these claims. It examined public records and confirmed hundreds of live, healthy trees had been removed, despite a backlog of thousands of dead, standing trees remaining, and in contrast to the municipality’s environmental position that acknowledged the role trees play in improving air quality and addressing chronic flooding.

Should these stories be told? It’s not for me to say, but the McCormick Foundation sponsored a study that revealed last year that only a third of Chicago’s residents believed the media were doing a good or very good job covering the issues that most mattered to them. Americans continue to value news, especially local news. It is a resource critical to active and informed civic engagement.

The health of democracy in the Chicago region requires a local news ecosystem with a broad range of reporting that is sufficiently deep and accessible to inform and inspire residents in their civic activity. Yet, the media landscape is eroding. Reporter and correspondent jobs in newspaper publishing have decreased almost 50% nationwide from 2005 to 2017, with a less grim, but still serious decline in radio, TV, and even digital media.

Mirroring national trends, the number of reporters and correspondents in the Chicago region continues to decline. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 850 reporters and correspondents remaining in the region as of May 2018, a third less than a decade ago.

Presented with this challenge, the McCormick Foundation sees an opportunity to improve democratic practice in our region by investing in efforts to enhance and extend the information available to citizens.

Our first journalism strategy is to continue to support organizations and initiatives that provide essential public affairs coverage and help them broaden and deepen their reporting. When considering the evidence of increasing resource constraints at outlets, especially for reporting that takes more time to tell deeper stories, we see an opportunity for philanthropy to continue to support newsrooms to bring a broader array of questions into our civic discourse and dive deeper to explore and explain their interconnection.

How we can best support newsrooms is a question we are continuing to explore and intend to keep doing so with our journalism partners. A primary vehicle will be our grantmaking. In 2018, the Democracy Program supported eight news outlets with a mix of general operating funds and support for projects that expanded the breadth and depth of stories available to the public. For example, we supported Injustice Watch’s robust coverage of Cook County’s judicial system in the run-up to the November 2018 elections, when voters rejected an incumbent judge for the first time in 28 years.

The Foundation remains committed to partnering with outlets that are producing high-impact stories on public issues and increasing the volume, variety, and quality of reporting in the region. As we evaluate partnership opportunities, we will be seeking outlets that prioritize engaging with communities to ensure that the civic potential of broader and deeper reporting is realized.

We are also interested in supporting newsrooms that emphasize collaboration over competition, recognizing the advantages this disposition presents for optimizing limited resources to deliver a broader impact. Finally, we seek organizations aligned with McCormick’s commitment to embrace diversity and inclusion and create equitable opportunities.

Chicago has incredible reporters and high-achieving newsrooms. In them, we see promise to explore so many more stories. In our work, we see an opportunity to support these efforts. Whether these new stories investigate our transportation infrastructure and the policies that shape it, the challenges of our criminal justice system, the promise of our educational system, the opportunities for improving environmental policy, or other issues, we hope to invest our resources in building deeper and more inclusive narratives that inform and activate citizens to engage with the world around them.

The Democracy Program is currently accepting applications from nonprofit organizations that believe their work helps advance our goal to broaden and deepen public affairs reporting in the region. We are also accepting applications for work supporting our other three journalism strategies, which you can learn about on our website and read more about on this blog.

Creating an Information-Rich Region

This article is the first in a series, written by program officer Andres Torres, introducing the Democracy Program’s work in journalism.”

Every election, about a night or two before voting, my family gathers to caucus. Over a meal and a drink, we share research on candidates, try to decode any ballot initiatives, and discuss the merits of our options. We were fortunate during Chicago’s recent election to have a range of sources to draw from and inform our debate.

New initiatives like Chi.Vote collected articles from local outlets so we could see, for example, education coverage from Chalkbeat Chicago alongside campaign finance data from Reform for Illinois and an article from The Daily Line offering context on the donors fueling the campaign. New outlets and new ventures augmented coverage available from long-standing sources, such as the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, WBEZ, and local TV stations.

As we moved down the ballot, however, we had to dig harder to find information. What are the prospective rewards and risks of a public bank? Just searching City Treasurer candidates “Conyears-Ervin and Pawar” in Google News returned a fraction of the results that “Lightfoot and Preckwinkle” did, leaving us with more questions than answers. This challenge grew exponentially more difficult as we sought to sort between our incumbent Alderman and his several primary challengers.

There was some great neighborhood-level political reporting in the most recent election, such as Block Club Chicago’s reporting on aldermanic forums or the City Bureau and Austin Weekly News collaboration to bring resident concerns into election coverage. However, as my family wrestled with our decisions, we found less, and less credible, information on the races closest to home or on issues that might be pressing to us, but perhaps weren’t central to the campaign, such as support for cultural programming and public art.

I acknowledge my family’s privilege in confronting the challenge of finding relevant and reliable information to inform our participation in Chicago’s election. We can access information in English, we have reliable internet access, we have high educational attainment, which has helped us develop the analytical skills needed to sort fact from fiction, and we have robust networks with educated and civically engaged peers who can help us fill the gaps in our knowledge. But many Chicagoans lack these privileges.

Information is essential to educating and activating citizens to participate in their democracy. Without civic participation, our democracy withers. While we are acutely aware of our need for civic information when we have a pressing decision, such as a ballot to punch, a healthy democratic society needs information perpetually and universally.

It is around this lofty goal of creating an information-rich environment that supports all residents across our region, regardless of race or ethnicity, to be informed and engaged citizens, that the McCormick Foundation’s Democracy Program is focusing its investments in journalism. Our hope is not just to augment the quantity and quality of public affairs reporting, but ensure that across the region, all people have access to this information.

We have developed four strategies for achieving this goal, and we are now accepting Letters of Inquiry (LOI) for grants to support organizations and initiatives that advance one or more of these strategies. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be introducing these four strategies on our blog to offer insights into how we came to these priorities and how we envision advancing the work. In the meantime, I welcome your questions.