While I was in Chicago recently, I had the great good fortune of meeting Liam Krehbiel, founder of the new nonprofit, A Better Chicago. A Better Chicago uses a venture capital approach to help low-income youth, adults and families to get the education and skills they need to stand on their own two feet.
I get so excited when people truly think (& act!) outside of the box. This is exactly what Liam has done with this new model of philanthropy. It’s not the same-old, same-old which is an incredibly Silver Lined inspiration.
Liam kindly took the time to answer a few questions to explain the what, why and how of A Better Chicago. I hope that you enjoy getting to know A Better Chicago as much as I have!
What is your mission? Our mission is to invest in a portfolio of high-performing nonprofit organizations that are dramatically advancing opportunities for our region’s low-income population.
What is your philanthropic model? We act much like a venture capital firm does, in that we help high performing nonprofits to grow and realize their potential. Just like a successful venture capital firm, we rigorously screen nonprofits before investing, and then we hold them accountable to achieving results. But our support goes beyond just a grant. We also help our grantees in areas like strategic planning, marketing and technology. So we’re helping our grantees to work more effectively, in addition to helping them to grow.
What are your priorities? At the heart of A Better Chicago is opportunity. We believe that everyone deserves the opportunity to reach their potential and proudly stand on their own two feet. To that end, we support organizations that are equipping people with the education, skills and credentials to compete in the 21st century economy. Our funding is focused on three areas that are critical to creating opportunity and achieving self-sufficiency: early childhood development, K-12 education and workforce development.
How is ABC different from other charities? Our model centers on four aspects:
- 100% impact: Our board underwrites all of our operating expenses, so 100% of every dollar donated to A Better Chicago is invested in our region’s most effective nonprofits.
- Rigorous due diligence: We do the homework for you. A Better Chicago only funds the most effective and innovative nonprofits in our region. Further, we continually track our grantees’ performance to help them improve and hold them accountable to delivering results.
- Add value: Our investment goes beyond just dollars. We help our grantees tackle their biggest strategic and operational challenges by providing a variety of management support services. Examples include strategic planning, board development and communications assistance.
- Engagement: Our transparent investment approach helps donors to understand where their support is going, and how it is making a difference. Also, we provide opportunities for engagement with our grantees, such as volunteering or joining a board.
What are your plans for future growth? We made our first round of grants to three outstanding nonprofits last year. Our plans are to grow our portfolio of grantees up to 15-20 organizations over the next 4-5 years. To do that, we’ll need to build up our board, staff and base of supporters.
What challenges do you face? People. It’s all about finding and developing great people to build our organization. That will be the biggest driver of our success. But building a team of great people isn’t easy. It’s takes a lot of work. If we do that right, then good things will follow.
What do you think will change about ABC over the next five years? Right now, we are a really young organization. We have a staff of four and a board of five. At this size, we need to be really entrepreneurial, and everyone needs to wear a number of different hats. As we grow, we will build out our team. That means our roles will change in some ways. But I hope to keep that entrepreneurial spirit. It keeps us hungry and creative.
What would you like for people to know about ABC? A Better Chicago makes it easy to make a difference in our community. Chicago is facing a lot of challenges these days. I think the biggest of all is that we are doing a bad job of educating and training our youth for the careers of tomorrow. But the good news is that A Better Chicago is doing something about it. We are helping our region’s very best nonprofits to serve more people in need. That is creating opportunity for folks who wouldn’t have a shot at having a career, owning a home or providing for their children. We make it easy for people to give with confidence because we do the homework for them. We don’t invest a dime into a program until we have thoroughly vetted it. Further, because our board generously covers all of our operating expenses, 100% of every donation goes to charity.
What is the best thing that has happened to you since founding ABC? I’ve had the opportunity to meet some incredible people, both on the fund-raising and grant-making sides of our work. It’s really inspiring to see the passion that people have for Chicago and for helping those in need.
How can people get involved? There are lots of ways to get involved. If we are going to be successful, then we need to raise the funds that enable us to invest in our grantees to help them thrive. But it goes beyond that. We are looking to engage folks who are interested in donating their time and talent. For example, Latham & Watkins LLP is providing us with pro bono legal services, which is enormously impactful. We would love to speak with folks who are passionate about the work we do and have a skillset that will provide real value to us. Also, we can help folks find meaningful engagement opportunities with our grantees as a volunteer or, in some cases, as a board or advisory board member. It’s all about helping people find an opportunity that’s a great fit for all sides.
From where did your personal interest in ABC stem? When I was in high school, I volunteered after school at an elementary school in in low-income area. I helped third-graders with their homework. After a few visits, it dawned on me. These kids were struggling with basic addition and subtraction, even though they should have been working on long division and fraction. The reality hit me all at once. These kids—at just age 9—were already off track, and their futures were dim. That experience got me fired up to give back.
What got me focused on A Better Chicago was from working in New York for a few years for an amazing foundation. I learned first-hand that traditional philanthropy wasn’t working very well, but that another model existed. In short, there is a lot that philanthropy can learn from the private sector. Sure, they are not identical. But, there is a lot we can learn from leading edge venture capital firms and how they help their portfolio companies to succeed. When it comes to things like our country’s poor education system, people should remember that a solution exists for almost every problem out there. That’s not the biggest issue. The biggest issue is that we are really bad about scaling our best solutions. And I think the venture capital space can teach us a thing or two about scaling. When I moved back to Chicago seven years ago, I kept looking for a group that did similar work to what I found in New York, but I didn’t find it. That’s what led me to eventually start A Better Chicago.
What is your professional background and how does it influence your work at A Better Chicago? Prior to founding A Better Chicago in 2010, I spent 10 years in the corporate and nonprofit sectors. Most recently, I was a management consultant at Bain & Company. Prior to Bain, I worked at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, which is where I learned how philanthropy can be more effective. Earlier on, I worked in the investment banking group of William Blair & Company and in the development office of ACCION USA. I have a BA from Dartmouth College and a MBA from the Kellogg School of Management.
Who was your mentor as a child? My dad. He is one of the most dedicated, thoughtful and generous people I have ever met. And he does it all for the right reasons. There is no ego there. I learned a lot from him.
What inspires you? I’m inspired by the organizations we fund that are directly addressing some of our region’s most troubling problems. These programs are the real deal. They are truly transforming lives in a very concrete, measurable way. That gets me fired up. Also, I am inspired by the incredible folks we have on our staff and board. I’m lucky to call them teammates.
What is your ultimate Silver Lining in life? My wife! She keeps me on track and focused on what really matters.
If you’d like to learn more about A Better Chicago, please go to their website: http://abetterchicago.org/