11 Nonprofits Making a Major Impact in Chicago

Chicago is famous for plenty of reasons — it’s home to some of the country’s best pizza, beautiful Lake Michigan, ludicrously sub-zero temperatures … and the list goes on and on. What you might not know about our fair city, though, is that Chicago is a hotbed of charitable activity. In fact, a 2015 study by Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy on behalf of The Chicago Community Trust recognized Chicago as the most philanthropic city in the country. We’ve always sought to connect our readers to carefully vetted nonprofits, first and foremost through our annual Philanthropy Awards, but with a city positively teeming with deserving nonprofits, we simply can’t stop there. This December, as you look for ways to brighten someone else’s holiday season, check out this list of 11 incredible nonprofits that also happen to all be past runners up for Philanthropy Awards. No matter which one you support, you’ll be helping to make a big difference in Chicago and beyond.

Bunker Labs

It’s common knowledge that members of the military have difficulty reintegrating into society. Bunker Labs is here to help — they offer assistance to the one-quarter of the one million military members returning home who start their own businesses. Some quick math: that’s a whopping 250,000 burgeoning entrepreneurs. Bunker Labs provides networking, resources, and more to transitioning service members. The organization is so successful, in fact, that there is a Bunker Labs chapter in more than 40 cities around the country, from Austin to Wilmington. To date, Bunker Labs has created over a thousand jobs for veterans and has partnered with massive companies like JPMorgan Chase and the Newman’s Own Foundation. The organization also provides support to military spouses — one so-called “milspouse” is now the founder of The Chicago Dental Studio, a franchise dental studio with three locations, all thanks to training and support offered by Bunker Labs. 

CASA Lake County


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CASA is probably not a new name to you, but its impact has stood the test of time. For more than 40 years, CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) has helped hundreds of thousands of abused and neglected children across the nation receive legal assistance in the courtroom. The Lake County chapter, which was founded in 1993, has since trained more than 3,000 people to help stand up for the rights and needs of children. Volunteers do everything from accompanying the child to court to sending care packages to a shelter where the child is staying to securing education for children who have been neglected or moved between shelters and foster homes too frequently. If you would like to volunteer your time with CASA, please contact scash@casalakecounty.com for more information.

Hope Works Community Development


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How do you improve a community? By helping the people in that community work together to make it better. It’s no simple feat, but that’s what Hope Works Community Development is committed to doing — revitalizing neighborhood communities on Chicago’s South Side by facilitating economic opportunities and driving growth. Founded in 2014 by Pastor Brad Beier, originally from Baltimore, Hope Works came about after Beier hired a number of Woodlawn locals to help renovate an abandoned pool hall. Upon seeing the enormous social impact of hiring neighbors to improve their own neighborhood, Beier founded Hope Works to help Woodlawn locals find employment and give back to the community at large. From designing a resume to cultivating new skills, Hope Works is there at every step of the process to help people find and keep a job.

Reading in Motion

Too many children are reading below grade level, setting them up for frustration and difficulty later in their schooling. For more than 36 years, Reading in Motion has worked to change that: their mission is to get every student reading at or above grade level within their first years of school. This mission is especially important for children who need more support for a variety of reasons, many of them out of a child’s control. Reading in Motion recognizes that literacy is a racial and socioeconomic issue — close to 50 percent of white fourth grade students were reading at a proficient level, while black and Hispanic students lagged behind at 20 and 23 percent, respectively. Additionally, only 22 percent of children from low-income households read at a proficient level, while that number is above 50 percent for children from more affluent homes. Reading in Motion wants to counteract that injustice, especially because early reading skills have proven to decrease problems such as poverty, dropping out of high school, incarceration, unemployment, and more. Thanks to their highly effective programming, they have served more than 50,000 students, and 81 percent of children in the program ended the school year reading at or above grade level. 

Women Employed

For more than 45 years, Women Employed has been helping Chicago-area women battle workplace sexism. What started initially as demanding respect, fair salaries, and opportunities for advancement has morphed into developing programs to help more women access the education and training they need to obtain better jobs. Women Employed’s annual fundraising event, The Working Lunch, has featured powerful speakers including Ai-jen Poo, the cofounder and director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance; Mónica Ramírez, co-founder and president of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, whose open letter to Time Magazine about farmworker women sparked the creation of the Times Up Fund; and Andrea Pino, co-founder of the national survivor advocacy organization End Rape on Campus, whose work and personal journey is prominently featured in the Emmy-nominated film “The Hunting Ground.” As an organization, Women Employed has successfully won over $50 million to expand Illinois’ tuition assistance program for low-income students and advocated strongly for the No Salary History bill, passed in 2010, that prohibits employers from asking job applicants for salary history — a practice that keeps racial and gender inequality alive and well in the workplace. From directing student aid funding to those in need to advocating for pregnancy fairness, Women Employed is making a difference when it comes to workplace equity. 

Zacharias Sexual Abuse Center

Known casually as the ZCenter, the Zacharias Sexual Abuse Center has been helping sexual assault and abuse survivors in northwestern Illinois since 1983. In fact, ZCenter is the only rape crisis center in Lake County and has been serving survivors for 35 years, helping them take back their lives and supporting them as they move from being victims to living as thriving, empowered survivors. In 2018 alone, the organization counseled more than 1,000 clients (including transgender and nonbinary individuals, who are at special risk for sexual assault and violence) and educated more than 13,000 students in Lake County schools about preventing sexual violence. ZCenter also provides advocates in emergency rooms and trains law enforcement in dealing with victims of sexual assault. Volunteers can do everything from manning the 24-hour support hotline to accompanying survivors to court appointments. Survivors can take part in both individual and group counseling in a holistic environment that focuses on guiding clients back to health through gentle compassion.


The ARK was born in 1971, founded by a doctor and a local rabbi who wanted to create an organized way to do mitzvot, or good deeds. What started as a free medical clinic has evolved into support for thousands of financially insecure Jews across the Chicagoland area. Drawing on shared values of care, respect, empathy, and loving kindness, The ARK provides an array of medical, legal, and social services for Chicagoland Jews in need. From providing food and toiletries to families in need to transitional housing to helping people through the hiring process, The ARK welcomes Jews from all walks of life. Volunteers can help stock the food pantry or even donate their time as medical and legal professionals, seeing patients in their office and offering legal assistance.


At a time when fine arts programming for children is seen as an unnecessary expenditure, Marwen is stepping in to make sure that all students, grades 6 through 12, have exposure to the world of visual arts — completely free of charge. Founded in 1987 by Chicago entrepreneur Steve Berkowitz, who was inspired by the positive impact arts education had on his two daughters, Marwen today offers studio workshops where students can hone their skills, college counseling, and opportunities for art teachers to refine their practice through survey and assessment. More than 90 percent of students at Marwen are considered low-income, and 91 percent of Marwen students go to college. Located in River North, Marwen students can take classes in photography, sculpting, textiles, ceramics, painting, and more. Kids come from 57 different ZIP codes around the Chicagoland region and 261 different schools. Any student, so long as they fit the age range and can get to the classes, is welcome to discover the world of art at Marwen. 

Children’s Place Association


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Poverty negatively affects a child’s life in innumerable ways — that’s why Children’s Place Association is committed to a four-pronged approach: focusing on health, education, family, and financial stability. Since 1991, Children’s Place has been helping children and families overcome extreme poverty and health issues, impacting the lives of Chicago’s most vulnerable children through improved access to healthcare, nutrition, education, and local capacity building. Children’s Place offers educational resources, early childhood care and medical screenings, supportive housing, and even a summer camp for children affected by family illness. Over the past almost 30 years, Children’s Place has served more than 5,000 children. Their efforts have been so successful that since 2007, Children’s Place International has worked with partner organizations in developing countries around the world. 

Fill a Heart 4 Kids

In 2007, the McAveeny family started taking in homeless children. More than 10 years later, that first step has morphed into Fill a Heart 4 Kids, a nonprofit working to make sure that homeless and foster children around the Chicagoland area feel loved and supported. The idea behind the organization? Give children memories that will last a lifetime — memories as simple as a birthday party with a cake or the opportunity to go trick-or-treating. Fill a Heart 4 Kids has partnered with other Chicago organizations such as Covenant House and Jewish Child and Family Services. From care packages filled with gifts and necessities on birthdays to Survival BacPacs™ that come stuffed with immediate basic necessities such as blankets, toiletries, and food for homeless youth struggling to survive to special events such as seeing a movie or getting a manicure, Fill a Heart 4 Kids wants every child to feel loved and supported every day of the year.

Connections for the Homeless

Since opening its doors more than 35 years ago, Connections for the Homeless has worked to address the root causes of homelessness. With a combination of prevention, housing, drop-in shelter, and advocacy, Connections for the Homeless served more than 1,500 individuals in between June of 2018 and July of 2019. Connections for the Homeless prioritizing keeping people in their homes in the first place — they provide financial assistance for back payments on rent, mortgage, and utility bills, along with case management to help people get back on their feet. Additionally, they also run a year-round drop-in shelter for those living on the street who need help to meet their basic needs. Using trauma-informed services to help clients begin thinking about their future, the shelter also includes help with case management, health and wellness, laundry, storage, and more. Finally, they advocate for affordable housing in the Chicago suburbs, and were instrumental in securing 52 new units of affordable housing in Evanston and Wilmette in the past year, with more planned for Skokie and the wider region. 

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