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The civic vitality and public life of Chicagoland and her millions of citizens are deeply and radically connected to the good works and health of her charitable sector. And our region’s charitable sector is completely integrated and amazingly intertwined with the strength and productivity of our business sector and the effectiveness of government at the city, county and state levels. The progress and well-being of our families, neighborhoods and communities depends on these three sectors each being effective, delivering on their promises and advancing a progressive and thoughtful agenda as the 21st century unfolds.

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Too often when we think about what it takes to create a public life that we would all be proud of, and from which all our fellow citizens would benefit, we do not pay enough attention to the charitable sector. In Chicagoland, as in most places, this would be a mistake. Much about the physical, intellectual and moral condition of our communities is defined by the effective action and massive presence of the charitable sector. In our great city and its surrounding region this impact is enormous and well worth the energy, enterprise, economic support and engagement it requires.

In Illinois at large, with Chicago at the center of a statewide charitable culture, IRS registered charities account for almost one half million workers, billions of dollars in wages, tens of billions of dollars in expenses and even more tens of billions in assets. As recent Chicago Donors Forum studies make clear, the size of our shared charitable enterprise is even greater if one accounts for the broader work of our religious congregations and additional forms of charitable work. The Chicago Donors Forum, working with the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Studies, has issued a May 2005 study of the sector. It makes for instructive reading and should be in the hands of all who care about our shared charitable sector. (www.donorsforum.org)

Business leaders should recognize and continue to invest in the charitable sector with their personal time, talent and treasure, and that of their enterprises, even in highly competitive and challenging times, for a number of compelling reasons:

1. Our charitable sector provides the venture capital for community problem solving, often establishing the experimental and entrepreneurial efforts, which lead to discovery of broad scale solutions to community-wide problems. Chicago’s social entrepreneurs span almost three centuries now and include some of the great figures in the history of American social movements in social work, racial equality, education reform, housing, employment training, healthcare and public culture.

2. Our charitable sector provides a training ground for citizen leaders and instruction in the disciplines and habits which sustain our democracy at the neighborhood, community, city, state and federal levels. The practice of democratic decision making, consensus building and civil discourse has and continues to lift up succeeding generations who find a healthy place in our larger public political life.

3. Our charitable sector requires, recruits and depends on countless thousands of volunteers to do real work in real communities. This work ranges from coaching kids’ sports teams, to directing community orchestras, from serving meals on wheels, to volunteering in hospitals and care centers. Such work humanizes, connects and draws out the best in our fellow citizens. It likewise allows and encourages a culture of sharing and a recognition of gifts beyond wealth and position.

4. Our charitable sector has a special role to play with those in most need in our communities, sharing the burden with government, but also playing an important role in advocacy and advance for those with little or no voice in larger chambers of power.

5. Our charitable sector gives voice and wing to the highest and best aspirations of the human spirit in our midst. It defines who we are as a people at the community level and in the larger American story. It adds richness and dimension to community life, diversity in its expression and opportunity in its practice.

For most of our shared history, the charitable sector in Chicagoland has benefited from a constructive, complementary and supportive business community. Certainly, at times, some tensions and challenge have played out in this relationship. But these times have only made it possible for the community that both sectors inhabit to be stronger and more vital.

As the many organizations and institutions in the charitable sector strive for more effectiveness, efficiency and efficacy in our new century, business has an important role to play. Business enterprise is ultimately the source of the wealth which drives and enriches our shared economy. Business enterprise is a major resource for volunteers, donors, directors, trustees and partners. Business enterprise is a vendor, supplier, and economic partner. Business enterprise is a source of learning about best practice and successful patterns of operation.

There is no better place for the partnership between business and charity to work itself out in the 21st century than in Chicago. We have what it takes. All we need to achieve even greater success is the will required to lift our mutual awareness, depth of relationship and best practices.

Kenneth L. Gladish President/Chief Executive Officer,
YMCA of the USA

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