How a Gift to the CBF Becomes a Grant with Exponential Impact

Grants to support pro bono and legal aid organizations have been a central part of the CBF’s work since its inception. Last year, the CBF awarded over $2 million in grants, investing in the entire pro bono and legal aid system in our community.  A lot goes into determining how the CBF allocates these grant funds to maximize impact, giving the CBF’s thousands of donors and partners a unique opportunity to make a difference in our community.

The dozens of pro bono and legal aid organizations and related initiatives the CBF supports are part of a continuum of legal services helping people in need. Those services range from web-based resources, legal aid hotlines, and advice desks to full representation and larger impact litigation and advocacy. Thoroughly evaluating all these organizations and understanding how these various organizations fit in to Chicago’s legal landscape would be virtually impossible for any one person and highly difficult even for law firms and corporations.

That’s why the CBF’s comprehensive screening and evaluation process for grants is such a benefit for our legal community and other dedicated partners. Donors can take pride in the robust grantmaking process and in knowing their dollars are going where they will make the most difference for hundreds of thousands of people in need of legal help in the Chicago area.

The CBF grants process is overseen by a highly regarded board of lawyers and judges who are broadly representative of Chicago’s legal community, with the assistance of CBF staff with widely recognized expertise. Board members, along with members of the CBF’s Young Professionals Board, join CBF staff in making regular visits to the organizations applying for funding to better inform the Board in its grantmaking decisions. The process is designed to:

  • ensure accountability
  • strategically allocate funds to maximize impact
  • leverage additional support from government and other sources, and
  • promote best practices on common issues and collective challenges facing pro bono and legal aid organizations.

When making grant decisions, the CBF looks at the impact an organization is making, including the number of people or community served. Some of the other important factors considered include:

  • a strong and responsive staff and board leadership
  • a sound vision for what the organization is trying to accomplish and a solid sense of where it is headed, including a long-range strategic plan
  • how the organization fits into the broader pro bono and legal aid system
  • sound financial management, and
  • strategic use of pro bono attorneys.

For special projects and initiatives, we also consider whether an organization is uniquely positioned to carry out a particular project and whether it is coordinating with other relevant stakeholders.

With more than half of low-income and disadvantaged people in the Chicago area unable to get often critical legal help due to a shortage of pro bono and legal aid resources, and many more moderate income people lacking affordable help, the CBF grants process plays a key role in helping donors maximize their impact to make a difference.