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Illinoisans give 2% to charity. A little more could mean a lot, says Forefront CEO

Eric Weinheimer stepped into the CEO role at Forefront, formerly the Donors Forum, in 2014 after spending 18 years running the nonprofit Cara Program, which provides job training, job placement and support to impoverished adults.

It was a change of pace for the 43-year-old organization, since Weinheimer was its first CEO who came from the trenches, working directly in social services. The move was also a shift for Weinheimer, 52, a University of Chicago Booth School of Business graduate who spent a decade working in finance before following his professional passion into the nonprofit world.

Weinheimer brought to the organization a new perspective and eventually, a new name aimed at explaining the organization's revitalized mission: bringing nonprofits, foundations and social entrepreneurs together to collaboratively solve social problems and, according to Weinheimer, create a "vibrant" social impact sector in the state. The organization, with more than 1,100 Illinois-based members, last year raised $11.3 million from individual and group donors with its website and social media campaign #ILGive.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How do you gather people around issues?

A: Working with our members, we said, "Let's build an initiative that makes it easier for nonprofits to work together." (It is the) Mission Sustainability Initiative. For the first time, there's infrastructure. There's a place where nonprofits can go and they can get confidential technical assistance, education, pro bono support and grant funding to partner and collaborate.

Q: What is your role as CEO?

A: My job is to work with our board and make sure that we put together a vision. Our mission is to build the sector. Our job is to create the conditions and the environment that allows all these organizations to do their best work.

Q: How do you create those conditions?

A: It's four things. No. 1, bring more dollars to the sector. No. 2 is developing the people. So we have a robust training curriculum. No. 3 is promoting collaboration partnership, and No. 4 is advancing policies that are favorable to our work.

Q: What is the biggest challenge nonprofits and foundations are facing today?

A: The state budget. And yes, we just did pass a state budget, but that was two years of just extraordinary stress on the sector. And you know who suffered? The communities being served.

Q: How does Chicago's work in the philanthropic and nonprofit sector compare with other large cities, such as New York City or Los Angeles or Atlanta?

A: I think there's a real spirit of engagement here in Chicago, which I don't think New York or other places can tout. I also think that Chicago is much more innovative in its philanthropy, and collaborative, than people realize. I would say we're more collaborative than what I hear and see in other parts of the country. The fact that Forefront exists — we're the only organization of its kind in the country. Around the country there are associations of grant-makers. And associations or nonprofits. Not both.

Q: One of your long-term goals is to increase Illinois residents' charitable giving from the current average, 2 percent of income.

A: Right now we're figuring out — can we get that to 2.1 percent — which is a ton of money. But right now we don't know what our long-term goal is. We know that this year we want to raise $15 million with #ILGive.

Q: Which sector garners the most money here in Illinois?

A: Outside of churches and universities, human services.

Q: So what needs more focus?

A: I think that's one of the challenges for our sector. It's easy to pit one part of the sector against another. It's like asking, "Pick your favorite child." My short answer is that they all need to be lifted up. I think the issue that the city in particular is grappling with now is the violence.

Q: How are you tackling this?

A: Well, education plays a key role in alleviating the violence. Social services. The arts. After-school programs. The church, right? So how do we bring a whole-cloth approach to this. It's not that simple.

Q: Which organizations are going to be leading that collaboration, that partnership to address gun violence?

A: That's our job, our mission.

There's a consortium of foundations and some nonprofits. There's about 35 of them. They gather and meet regularly and have a robust plan on how to help. It's called the Safe and Peaceful Communities Initiative.

Q: Do you feel the initiative is getting enough attention?

A: No, but I don't know if it should because we've got a lot of work to do. Until we start to address over the long term some of these structural reasons why the violence is occurring, we can't celebrate.

Q: What do you see as the corporate community's role in giving and service?

A: The Chicago corporate community is very engaged (and) generous. And you know, there are really organized groups of corporate social responsibility professionals who are working together and saying, "Okay, how do we (help)?"

An earlier version of this story included incomplete comments by Eric Weinheimer. 

crshropshire@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @corilyn

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