From humble beginnings to a serious funder for students and area nonprofits, the Community Foundation of the Fox River Valley is on a mission to transform lives.
When Desare and Dorina Dina graduated from St. Charles East High School, their thoughts immediately went to the future. Like many people their age, they expected their journey to begin at college.
“At first I was going for communication, but then I decided on nursing for my major,” says Desare, who recently transferred to Northern Illinois University from Elgin Community College (ECC). “I plan on going into dermatology or aesthetics.”
Dorina, who is in her first semester at ECC, is also interested in medicine.
“Right now, my major is in biology,” she says. “It’s still early, but right now my goal is to be a physician assistant.”
For the Dina sisters, a future in medicine might not have been possible without support from the Community Foundation of the Fox River Valley.
“Our parents came here as refugees from Kosovo about 20 years ago and had a rough start getting set up financially,” says Desare. “The scholarships helped to lift a weight off both of our shoulders.”
For Dorina, the Community Foundation’s scholarship also means less time working to pay off tuition and more time focusing on studying.
“We can work to pay for leisure activities, instead of our entire education,” she says. “It makes life much easier.”
While scholarships are a major part of its giving strategy, The Community Foundation of the Fox River Valley is much more than a scholarship generator. The public charity also offers a number of ways for donors to give back to the community across Kane County, the City of Aurora and Kendall County, from funds that benefit the entire region to endowment funds that serve specific organizations. Currently celebrating its 75th anniversary, the Community Foundation of Fox River Valley has provided more than $24 million in scholarships to students like Desare and Dorina. The total amount of grants and scholarships awarded since inception exceeds $103 million. For many like the Dina sisters, the foundation, with its rich history of giving, is helping them shape their future.
A Meeting and a Couple of Phone Calls
Making life easier for people in the Fox River Valley has been at the heart of the Community Foundation’s mission since its inception. While the organization was officially launched in 1948, it was the result of a series of weekly meetings started in 1943 with Charles Hoefer, publisher of the Aurora Beacon-News. The focus of those meetings was to create a better community.
“It all boiled down to a small group of people who wanted to get together and do some good in the community,” says Austin Dempsey, board chair for the Community Foundation of the Fox River Valley.
Known as the Aurora Foundation until 2006, the organization began awarding scholarships in its second year. The first scholarships were worth $150 (just under $2,000 today) and were distributed to four high school graduates. Seventy-five years later, the foundation distributes an amount that’s nearly 100-fold. In May 2023, the foundation awarded 450 scholarships valued at $2.3 million – a fact that excites Dempsey.
“I’ve never seen a scholarship program that is better aligned, suited and customized to helping the donors who leave money in a legacy for a scholarship,” he says.
One of those donors is Fred Marguilies, vice president of Continental Envelope, a family-run business in Geneva that is one of the largest direct-mail envelope manufacturers in the Midwest.
One day, while talking about high college tuition rates with Jeanne Phelan, Continental Envelope’s vice president of human resources, Marguilies had the idea of starting a scholarship to benefit the company’s employees.
“We didn’t want to re-invent the wheel and do it ourselves,” he says. “I just Googled, and the foundation popped up. It was easy to find.”
Marguilies was surprised and pleased with how easy it was to get started. After one meeting and a few phone calls, he had established not one but three scholarships. Distribution and fund management are handled entirely by the Community Foundation, so all Continental Envelope needs to do is contribute its donation and specify the eligibility criteria for applicants.
“It was like we hit the jackpot,” says Marguilies. “It fit perfectly.”
The first Continental Envelope Scholarships were awarded in 2022, earmarked to benefit current company employees and their children.
“A lot of our employees are immigrants who are European and from Central and South America who came here to make a better life for themselves and their families,” says Phelan. “If we can help them do that, that’s what they came here for.”
One of those recipients was Desare Dina, whose mother works for Continental Envelope.
During the application process, Desare discovered the Community Foundation makes scholarship funding easy not just for donors but for applicants as well.
“On the website, I saw that you could apply for a lot of different scholarships with just one application,” she says.
With the first round of scholarships awarded and recipients starting their post-secondary careers, Marguilies is motivated not just to continue the Continental Envelope fund, but to talk to other companies about starting funds of their own.
“They make it so easy. It was a meeting and a couple of phone calls,” he says.
To Julie Christman, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of the Fox River Valley, the foundation’s accessibility is a natural result of its relationship with the community.
“It was many years before the foundation had staff. It was all volunteer-driven. Even today, our staff is small,” she says. “We depend on volunteers. We don’t operate without the community being involved. It’s great to hear that people think we’re easily accessible, but we also feel that the community is accessible to us.”
Christman also points out that a number of scholarship recipients are inspired to give back to the community. Hailey Becker, an Aurora resident and scholarship recipient, is pursuing a Ph.D. in forestry and a master’s degree in fine arts at Michigan State University. The 23-year-old became a philanthropist through the foundation and established the Hailey Becker Advisory Fund to benefit whatever causes she might choose.
“That confidence booster is so huge for scholarship recipients,” Christman says. “It shows them that their community is behind them.”
Allocation and Collaboration
Grantmaking is another major component of the Community Foundation. It started in 1948 with just one fund worth $5,000 – an amount that’s more than $63,000 today. This past year alone, the organization awarded 41 grants to support local nonprofit organizations to the tune of $615,000.
Lazarus House in St. Charles has benefited from these grants in many ways over the years. The organization provides shelter, food and support services for individuals who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness in Kane County, from the Tri-Cities to more rural outposts in western Kane. Over 26 years, Lazarus House has grown from an emergency shelter to an agency that also provides a homeless prevention program, a two-year transitional living program and food security services. Lazarus House leaders are also creating a shared housing program in a two-flat across the street.
“It started out very small,” says Julie Purcell, executive director of Lazarus House. “We just keep growing, changing and adapting to what the needs are in the community.”
For Purcell, the partnership between Lazarus House and the Community Foundation of the Fox River Valley has been an important resource to help with the organization’s growth.
“All of the money that we raise we try to put toward guest services,” she says. “When something comes up, capital-wise, it’s hard to spend the money our donors give us. It’s wonderful to have this relationship with the community foundation that can provide those kinds of important resources.”
With some of those resources, Lazarus House purchased its current building at 214 Walnut St. in St. Charles and consolidated its programing under one roof. A Community Foundation grant in 2019 supported additional improvements to the building’s lower level to accommodate a Women and Children’s Day Center.
“We had a lot of fire sprinklers, security installations and technology upgrades that had to be done in a very old building,” Purcell says. “It was wonderful to be able to apply to the Community Foundation and have them support us in getting that infrastructure up and running.”
While Purcell appreciates the outpouring of support, she also recognizes that Lazarus House is one of many organizations seeking assistance. “We don’t ask unless we really need it,” she says.
Recently, in an attempt to understand where and how its resources are needed most, the Community Foundation partnered with the Dunham Foundation, a philanthropic organization in Aurora, to perform a community needs assessment. The project provided insights into local services, the needs of the community and the gaps between the two. For the Community Foundation’s Christman, it was a way to connect with service organizations in the region, gather information and understand emerging needs.
“It helps us to be educated and give information back to our donors,” she says. “We also wanted to reflect as an organization and say, ‘Is there a need that boiled up, outside of everything else, that we should be addressing? Is there a proactive approach we can take?’”
Such actions demonstrate to Christman the way the foundation’s partnerships continue to help it stay flexible and able to pivot.
“The fact that we’re embedded in the community means we’re aware of what’s going on,” she says. “People feel comfortable contacting us.”
One of the most recent examples of the foundation’s rapid response occurred in 2020.
“When COVID happened, we immediately talked with the other grant makers,” says Christman.
“We said, ‘We have a good portal system. We can accept applications and we want to be helpful. Let’s join together and move fast.’”
It was critical to organizations like Lazarus House, which found itself in uncharted waters.
“We were really impacted because we’re community living,” says Purcell. “The Community Foundation said to many organizations, ‘How can we step in and help?’ They gave us $15,000 so we could put all of our guests into hotel rooms and change everything in our shelter to house everyone safely. It wasn’t us going to them. They reached out to us.”
The Community Foundation also helps nonprofits to sustain themselves long-term through the creation of an endowment fund, which provides sustainable operating revenue into the future. Endowment funds communicate stability, something potential donors are looking for, says Dempsey.
“I’m really proud of our matching endowment program,” he adds. “It’s been ramped up in the past couple of years, but since 1990, over $1 million has been awarded from our foundation so that nonprofits can get endowments set up.”
Celebrating the Past. Activating the Future.
On Oct. 7, the Community Foundation of the Fox River Valley hosted its first-ever gala to celebrate 75 years of community impact. When the toasts, speeches and dancing ended, it was back to work, and that’s meant a renewed focus on the philanthropists of the future.
The foundation’s Youth Engagement in Philanthropy program (YEP), which is now entering its fifth year, is helping local students to learn about fundraising, develop leadership skills, work as a team and complete service projects of their own choosing.
Last spring, YEP members were tasked with distributing $25,000 throughout the community. Members reviewed 30 grant applications from local agencies, ultimately choosing seven to receive funding for their youth-focused programs.
“It’s a really neat way for us to add value back to the community and encourage young people to see themselves as a key player in making a difference,” says Christman.
Since its launch in 2019, the program has grown from 19 students in four area high schools to 44 students in 12 schools. The impact is growing, too. To date, 34 area nonprofits have received YEP grants, with $100,000 distributed to agencies that serve youths. By directly engaging the future of philanthropy, Christman hopes to solve other issues that crop up in the present nonprofit sector.
“We hear from a lot of nonprofits that it’s sometimes hard to find board members, or to have a diverse board,” she says. “We want our program model to have a diverse group with males and females, representative of the region with all of the different school districts, different racial ethnic groups and socio-economic levels. We want every high schooler to feel like this could be a place for them.”
So far, the approach has been successful, she says. The foundation was even approached by a former YEP member, now living in California, who is looking for a way to start a similar program there.
“One of the people who helped get YEP started called it ‘taking it beyond a bake sale,’” says Christman. “We ask, ‘What do you want to do? What is your passion?’ It’s inspiring to work with these young people who really care.”
For Dempsey, hearing that former YEP members want to start new chapters in other states is particularly inspiring.
“That is the evolution of what a small group of people wanted to do 75 years ago,” he says.
For Desare and Dorina Dina, whose postsecondary journey was made possible by the Community Foundation of the Fox River Valley, that seed has also been planted.
“There are a lot of places in the surrounding area that don’t have opportunities like this,” says Dorina. “It makes me really proud of our community.”