A Transformational Approach to Grantmaking
By Anne Evens, Chief Executive Officer of Elevate Energy December 19, 2017 11:30 AM
For the first time since our founding in 2000, Elevate Energy – a Chicago-based community development agency that helps people do more with less energy – participated in a funding opportunity that enabled us to think transformationally about how we achieve our mission. By providing multi-year, unrestricted grant support, the Citi Foundation’s Community Progress Makers Fund helped our organization develop the evidence and business case to dramatically increase clean energy investments in low-income communities. But it’s more than that. The Fund is an innovative approach to grant-making that pushes organizations to transform the world by first transforming themselves. Elevate Energy seized this unique opportunity to grow from an organization that focuses on program implementation to an organization that uses its on-the-ground, practical experience to help influence and inform energy policy in partnership with other leaders. In other words, the Community Progress Makers Fund helped us move from being a “doer” to being an “influencer.” We know that many of our nonprofit peers could likewise benefit from this kind of funding model and urge other foundations to consider similar approaches.A Traditional Focus on Program Implementation
Elevate Energy helps the most vulnerable people save money on a basic need, energy, by pairing data-driven strategies with community engagement to deliver programs that lower energy costs, protect people and the environment, and ensure the benefits of clean and efficient energy use reach those who need them most. Elevate Energy is based in Chicago but also has a presence in eight other cities nationwide. Since our founding seventeen years ago, we have served more than 100,000 families and saved consumers more than $55 million on energy bills. Energy-saving improvements in buildings have created 536 construction jobs, generated $64 million in energy efficiency investments, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 86,000 metric tons.
Asking the Big Questions was the First Step
Launched in 2015, the Community Progress Makers Fund provides $500,000 over two years to organizations that strengthen economic resiliency in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, San Francisco Bay Area, and Washington, D.C. Elevate Energy was selected to join the first cohort of 40 organizations. The application process encouraged us to step away from our normal way of doing business and think about what it would take to fundamentally change the system we operate in for the better. What would it take to end energy insecurity in the U.S.? How could we leverage the ongoing transition to the clean energy economy to create a more equitable society?
Notably, the application process focused nearly as much on internal growth as on external program delivery by asking how core support would help trigger or accelerate changes within our organization. Beyond the enormous value of providing a significant amount of general operating support, the Citi Foundation also provided a critical opportunity and clear platform for Community Progress Makers to learn from one another. Through the Fund, we were connected with cross-market experts and resources that provided technical assistance in the areas of communications, marketing, performance measurement and capacity-building.
Three Clear Signs of Transformation and Impact
The resulting impact of this general operating support has been significant. First, as a member of the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, Elevate Energy succeeded in helping to pass landmark energy legislation in Illinois that ensures low-income and environmental justice communities will benefit from present and future clean energy investment in the state.
Second, the support has made us more effective partners and collaborators with peer organizations, including fellow Community Progress Makers. For example, we now actively partner with Greater Englewood Community Development Corporation (GECDC) to develop a pipeline of Englewood-based contractors of color who are joining Elevate Energy’s vetted pool of contractors. This partnership will expand opportunities for contractors through technical skills development and diversify the energy construction industry as a whole.
Third, by shifting to an influencer role we’ve given staff the tools they need to make an important shift of mindset. Through the general operating support, we have completed a strategic plan that has informed many of our recent organizational and hiring priorities. We’ve also improved the staff’s communications skills through storytelling training and upgraded our data management systems.
All these efforts support Elevate Energy’s growth, strategic market priorities, and amplify our ability to develop our own people while continuing to provide quality services and support to our partners and customers. We’re already seeing tangible improvements in our capacity to achieve our overarching goal of providing “smarter energy use for all” through improved outreach, higher program participation, higher conversion rates, and stronger community partnerships.
Becoming a Community Progress Maker ultimately drove this transformation. The provision of general operating support has enabled Elevate Energy to transform itself into a key influencer in our industry and to more effectively drive clean energy investments in the low-income communities we serve both in our hometown of Chicago and eight other cities nationwide.
Anne Evens, Chief Executive Officer of Elevate Energy, has worked in energy efficiency and community development for over 25 years in both the nonprofit and governmental sectors. Ms. Evens has orchestrated Elevate Energy’s growth, building a nationally recognized organization with a $20 million annual operating budget, supported by diverse and multi-year funding, which enables the organization to expand its reach to underserved communities. Ms. Evens’ strategic focus on low- to moderate-income communities helps the organization achieve economic and climate goals by directing energy efficiency and environmental funding to place-based initiatives.