In 1887, Frances Wisebart Jacobs, the Rev. Myron W. Reed, Msgr. William J.O’Ryan, Dean H. Martyn Hart and Rabbi William S. Friedman put together an idea that became the nation’s first united campaign, benefitting 10 area health and welfare agencies in Denver, Colorado. They created an organization to collect the funds for local charities, to coordinate relief services, to counsel and refer clients to cooperating agencies, and to make emergency assistance grants for cases that could not be referred. That year, Denver raised $21,700 for this greater good, and created a movement that would become United Way.
In the years that followed, cities across the country joined in the movement, investing in local communities to aid disadvantaged people. With the success of Chicago railroads and manufacturing — and the determination with which its residents rebuilt their city after the Great Chicago Fire — it was not until the Stock Market Crash of 1929 that the citizens of Chicago chose to take up the movement.
A City Reborn
From the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 the people of Chicago unite to rebuild the city. A reborn Chicago hosts the World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition, which announces Chicago as an international innovator in architecture, art, industry and science while ushering in a new American century.
People In Need
After watching their fellow citizens struggle to survive, a small group of business people from the Chicago Association of Commerce gathered to help these families and individuals in deep poverty.
In 1930, this group created a committee of 25 business and civic leaders to collect and distribute funds to alleviate the suffering from unemployment. The committee, led by Edward L. Ryerson, Jr., president of the Chicago Council of Social Agencies, produced four statutes to define its role, laying the foundation for United Way of Metropolitan Chicago today.
These four statutes were:
- Solicit the business community for monetary donations.
- Create an efficient and priorities-based allocation process.
- Demonstrate advocacy efforts in response to unemployment.
- Collaborate fundraising, allocation and advocacy efforts among business, civic, government and labor leaders.
At the state level, Illinois Governor Louis L. Emmerson responded to the Great Depression by creating the Commission on Unemployment and Relief to formally organize temporary relief efforts.
Edward L. Ryerson, Jr. was asked to chair the Commission’s Budget and Relief Committee. The Commission received its funds through a payroll deduction system, which set aside employee contributions and employer-matched dollars. This system was the prototype for today’s United Way payroll deduction process.
The Governor’s Commission was renamed the Emergency Welfare Fund. For the first time under that name, unemployment relief was no longer the primary concern. Instead, nonprofit agencies were encouraged to submit applications for permanent membership status as their budgets became the priority of campaigns and allocations. The first agencies to submit applications were United Charities, Jewish Charities, Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army of Chicago and the Chicago Chapter of the American Red Cross. The Emergency Welfare Fund evolved into a more permanent and centralized fundraising entity, an organized leadership organization that would eventually be known as United Way.
One of the first suburban “chests” — the Riverside Community Chest — began providing social services outside of Chicago. From this model, more suburban communities would found their own chests or funds to provide people with health and human services support.
The Chicago Urban League became the first agency serving minority people to be funded by the organization.
New Highs and New Lows
As the depression worsens, President Roosevelt launches his plan to rebuild the economy while Chicago hosts its second World’s Fair.
The Emergency Welfare Fund was officially renamed the Community Fund of Allied Chicago Charities raising more than $1.8 million, thanks in large part to the generosity of Chicago companies like Joseph T. Ryerson & Son, Walgreens, International Harvester and Armour & Co.
The fund is renamed again: this time to the Community Fund of Chicago, which it remained for the next 43 years. The Community Fund raises $3 million and mobilizes 1,000 volunteers to assist 135 local social service agencies, proving to be a dependable organization to whom the city could turn for assistance. Concerned citizens found the LaGrange Area United Fund.
Women Making A Difference
While Chicagoland businessmen led the Fund’s board, in 1935 the Women’s Division began to run its own fundraising campaign. Under the leadership of co-chairwomen Mrs. Frank P. Hixon, Mrs. James R. Bremner, and Mrs. Charles P. Schwartz, the Division solicited contributions from 10 to 15 thousand women from other local women’s groups, helping the organization achieve its fundraising goals and humanitarian mission.
Gads Hill Center becomes the first agency to be funded that serves a Latino majority population.
The Community Chest of Oak Park and River Forest is founded and holds its first meeting to discuss fundraising for health and human service providers.
A Century of Chicago
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt visits Chicago to celebrate its centennial anniversary and the completion of Lake Shore Drive.
As the economy began showing signs of stabilization, the President decreased the Federal budget. As a result unemployment rose once again particularly in Chicago-area African American communities, reaching 50% in some areas. The Community Fund of Chicago was once again hard at work helping people return to self-sufficiency.
Also in 1937, the suburbs celebrated the opening of another community chest: the Community Chest in Berwyn, Illinois.
One-third of all manufacturing workers belong to a labor union. The Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council becomes one of the first labor groups to join the Fund as a partner agency. In its first year, the Council received $3,500 in allocations, which was used to invest in a children’s summer camp and playground located at 47th Street and Damen Avenue.
The City that Works
In 1941, the Chicago Federation of Labor helped the Fund raise $3,583,000; and in 1942, the Fund’s number of donors increased from 21,889 to 23,095, a record number for that time. These milestones marked the beginning of labor union investments — both of time and of money — in local communities through United Way, helping to sow the seeds for the relationship between the Fund and labor unions that still continues today.
At the end of 1941, America enters World War II and the increase in the demand for labor finally ends the Depression. World War II becomes the country’s top priority, and Chicagoans come forward to assist in any way possible.
Red Feather Days
The Women’s Division, under the leadership of Mrs. Earl Kribben, develops the idea to incorporate a red feather emblem and slogan in their fundraising campaign. As a non-religious and neutral icon, the red feather is used as a badge of honor to represent the kindness people show toward others in their local communities as an “emblem of good citizenship.”
During the years to follow, fundraising campaigns were kicked-off each October during “Red Feather Month,” and the phrase, “Helping those who need you is a feather in your hat,” could be seen in print throughout the Chicagoland area with a single, red feather to publicly promote the fund’s humanitarian cause.
The War Hits Home
The Community Fund of Chicago temporarily joined with the Community and War Fund to help contribute money to international communities affected by the Holocaust and tragic warfare.
Chicagoans also turned to the Community Fund to provide war relief. The fund reacted by channeling its priorities toward dislocated families, childcare and military personnel.
The Community Fund of Chicago broadens its donor base to include a wide variety of agencies, organizations, trusts and individuals, raising over $5 million.
Chicago becomes a booming city once again after the war and more companies join its philanthropic ranks. The Fund receives $1.5 million dollars in donations from a number of corporations including: the Chicago Daily News, Chicago Title and Trust, Chicago Tribune, City National Bank and Trust, Marshall Field & Co., First National Bank of Chicago, Goldblatt Brothers, Harris Trust and Savings, Northern Trust, Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Winston, Strawn & Shaw.
Rapid growth in the suburbs following the end of World War II led to the 1947 creation of the Suburban Community Chest Council, which consolidated disparate community chests outside of the City of Chicago, specifically Berwyn, Brookfield, Downers Grove, Glen Ellyn, Hinsdale, Lombard, Maywood, Oak Park/River Forest, Riverside, Stickney and Western Springs.
The Community Fund’s increased interaction with Chicago’s business community led to the inception of what is today called the Loaned Executive Program. Harris Bank, Commonwealth Edison, Northern Trust Bank and LaSalle Bank lead the way.
Chicago-area corporations begin internal fundraising initiatives encouraging employees to sign up for automatic donations to the Community Fund.
A More Perfect Union
Leo Perlis, a popular advocate for labor unions, becomes Community Services Director for the AFL-CIO, one of the largest union organizations in the country. Through numerous workshops that developed the skills of union liaisons, Perlis helps to spearhead the relationship between unions and United Way entities across the country. He felt strongly that unions existed not only to eliminate oppression in the workplace, but also to encourage union members to participate in social service agencies to improve their local communities.
Perlis promoted United Way fundraising efforts by calling on members to donate during every campaign season. In recognition of Perlis’s successes, the Leo Perlis Award was established in 2002 to recognize the work of a labor union that committed time and money to impact local communities during the campaign season.
Crusade of Mercy
The Community Fund/Red Cross Joint Appeal is renamed the Metropolitan Crusade of Mercy combining the efforts of the Community Fund of Chicago, the Mid-America Chapter of the American Red Cross and the Suburban Community Chest Council to serve the entire Chicago metropolitan area.
President Lyndon B. Johnson declares war on poverty to help the 19% of underserved Americans. The creation of the Economic Opportunity Act helped to install a number of social welfare programs, effectively lowering the poverty rate to 11%. Still, area residents continued to face issues that threatened their health, education, safety and overall independence. In response, the Fund created the Priorities Study Committee, which can be considered a precursor to the 1988 Environmental Analysis Committee. This committee investigated the health and human service areas that needed the most attention creating new priorities for the Fund.
United We Stand
The Council of Social Agencies of Chicago, with which the Community Fund had partnered in the 1940s, had become the Welfare Council of Metropolitan Chicago by 1951, and by 1973 was known as the Council for Community Services of Metropolitan Chicago. In 1977, the Community Fund and the Council for Community Services combined to form United Way of Metropolitan Chicago. The Suburban Community Chest Council became the United Way of Suburban Chicago a year earlier in 1976.
Many Names, One Mission
In 1980, the Metropolitan Crusade of Mercy became United Way/Crusade of Mercy, the primary fundraising entity along with United Way of Metropolitan Chicago and United Way of Suburban Chicago as the two allocating entities. A record amount of $40 million was distributed to United Way partner agencies in 1981. Along with the new United Way/Crusade of Mercy name came many changes throughout the years that followed. In 1982, United Way of Metropolitan Chicago was renamed United Way of Chicago.
As Chicagoans elect Harold Washington to be the city’s first African American mayor, the Chicago Tribune publishes a poll stating that the fear of unemployment was the number one concern for most adults. Chicago’s unemployment rate rises seven percentage points above the national average. Chicagoans respond to their community’s concern with overwhelming generosity, collecting $75 million dollars in donations. More than 70,000 volunteers came forward. In all, 375 local social service agencies were aided in programs to help area residents become independent.
United Way launches a new initiative known as the Special Grants and Incentives Program, also known as Priority Grants or Venture Grants. Through the Priority Grants Program, United Way was able to target funds for severely underserved communities and populations that its needs-assessment process deemed most urgent. The first grants were allocated to 19 organizations, and were capped at 10% of all allocations.
The United Way Tocqueville Society is named after Alexis Charles Henri-Clerel de Tocqueville, a 19th century historian and philosopher. Upon his arrival in America from his native France, Tocqueville noted the uniquely generous and giving spirit he found. “When an American asks for the cooperation of his fellow citizen, he is seldom refused,” Tocqueville wrote. “I have often seen it afforded spontaneously and with great goodwill.”
The goals of the United Way Tocqueville Society include changing lives through civic leadership and community service, allowing prominent Chicago area residents to deepen their commitment to a better future and providing an opportunity for public recognition. Tocqueville’s admiration of volunteerism and giving makes him the ideal namesake for this stellar group of community champions.
The Tocqueville Society was founded in 1984 by United Way of America to recognize outstanding philanthropists across the country. The Chicago chapter began in 1989. Nationwide, there are 398 Tocqueville Societies benefiting a local United Way.
50 Years Of Progress
In 1985, shortly after it celebrates its 50th year of service, United Way of Metropolitan Chicago begins addressing a new issue in urban Chicago: the overwhelming presence of gang activity spreading violence throughout the city. The city experiences a 27% increase in gang-related murders among 11- to 20-year-olds (Chicago Tribune archives).
In response to this issue, United Way allocates $300,000 in grant funding to 13 member-agency programs, including programs in Chicago Housing Authority properties and Chicago’s Pilsen and Humboldt Park neighborhoods, the three areas most affected by dangerous gang activity.
Between 1986 and 1987, funding to keep neighborhoods safe from gang violence became a top priority for the organization.
United Way changes its allocation priorities in response to its Environmental Analysis Committee’s evaluation. The committee concludes that the focus of the campaign and allocation process needs to center around five issue areas: human capital development, community development, family life, health and disability, and discrimination. United Way establishes three-year priority grants to help fund partner agencies that directly address these issues.
After the Hurricane Katrina, more than 7,000 evacuees flee to the Chicagoland area. United Way of Metropolitan Chicago coordinates more than 1,300 volunteers and raises $2.6 million to help evacuees with housing, access to healthcare, employment, counseling and crisis support.
In collaboration with the City of Chicago, Illinois Department of Human Services and the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago, United Way creates the Crisis Recovery Coordinating Council to bring long-term resources to Katrina evacuees. United Way is recognized nationally for its leadership, immediate action and efficiency during this time.
United Way also remains steadfast in its focus to improve the lives of those already living in the Chicago area. In 2005, the organization begins the Tocqueville Breakfast Series for corporate donors to connect on a more intimate level to discuss their businesses.
Also in 2005, United Way launches its African American Initiative, a program developed to address the needs of the African American community, specifically the future of young African American males. This initiative continues to focus on helping youth in Bronzeville/Grand Boulevard, Englewood, Greater Roseland, North Lawndale and Rogers Park.
In 2007, United Way starts the Latin American Initiative to assist the growing Latino community in Chicagoland, focusing on putting young Latinos on the track to succeed as adults.
Transition to Impact
As part of a research-based move to focus on the foundations for individual, family and community success, United Way launches its community-impact plan, LIVE UNITED 2020 (LU2020), to positively impact the lives of individuals and families in need throughout the Chicago region through its partner agency investments. The plan focuses on programs in the areas of education, financial stability, health and basic needs. LIVE UNITED 2020 aims to achieve the following goals by 2020:
- Help 50,000 underperforming middle school kids enter high school ready to succeed
- Advance economic stability for 100,000 households
- Connect over 200,000 people with available, preventative health services
- Answer the immediate crisis needs of 1 million people every year
A Focus on Neighborhoods
Looking to work in and with communities to address specific challenges in underserved neighborhoods, United Way launches the United Way Neighborhood Network Initiative, a region-wide strategic initiative to address local community challenges through highly coordinated community-specific strategies.
Working with a lead partner in each community, United Way funds and guides the work of the Neighborhood Network toward achieving its collective goal. United Way identifies the following 10 communities as Neighborhood Networks: Auburn-Gresham, Austin, Bronzeville, Brighton Park, Cicero, Evanston, Little Village, Robbins/Blue Island, South Chicago and West Chicago.
United Way of Metropolitan Chicago launches its United Pride affinity group in response to a growing need to affect change and foster a culture of generosity and inclusion for the LGBT community both within United Way and in our neighborhoods. A core value at United Way is diversity and through United Pride, the organization is able to reflect the diversity of sexual orientation, culture, ethnicity, age, religion, and other qualities that unite our region and, in turn, strengthen United Way.