Once upon a time, I was the charities, foundations and private social services reporter at the paper. That was my title. As such, corporations would always come to me with the news that they were giving X amount of money to Y organization.
Instead of the reaction they obviously expected—"You ARE?! How amazingly GENEROUS of you! Let me get that into the paper RIGHT AWAY!!!"—I would ask a question that stopped them dead in their tracks and usually killed their interest in having me write anything.
"Could you tell me how you picked this particular recipient? Because That might make an interesting story."
The answer was inevitably "No, we couldn't." They didn't have to say why. Because that would involve effort, on their part, going to the various levels of whatever nightmare corporate bureaucracy they had going on, thus revealing something of themselves. Plus the story would shift from what they wanted to see—"WIDGETCO GIVES BUNDLE TO DESERVING CHARITY 'This is just the kind of caring, generous folks we are at Widgetco," said Widgetco president and CEO Clark Manningly...—to something else. Something unknown and therefore scary.
Then Kraft Foods bit, and I wrote the following. What made me smile, in a rueful way, is that after it ran, then companies started asking me to write a story on how THEY decided to give to a certain charity, and I had to turn them doing say, "Sorry, I just did that...."
With happy, reading children sprawled photogenically at her feet, Joyce Grant, of Kraft General Foods, stood in the Rudy Lozano library in Pilsen on Thursday and presented an oversized check for $25,000 to representatives of a literacy project for Mexican Americans.
It was the sort of do-goodery that corporations cherish. A truly worthy cause, supported by the fruits of our great American economic system.
But exactly how did these two very different entities meet? How did giant, multinational Kraft General Foods, with $28 billion a year in revenues, find itself handing over a bit of cherished corporate profits to a shoestring literacy program based out of a crowded office on Harrison Street?
Thousands of programs of every size, description and merit set out on the journey; far fewer have the skill, worthiness and luck to finish successfully.
The literacy program, called Project FLAME, was among the lucky.
FLAME stands for Family Literacy: Aprendiendo, Mejorando, Educando (learning, improving, educating). It was created in 1989 by Tim Shanahan and Flora Rodriguez-Brown at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
As often happens, FLAME was a program created—in part—by a funding availability. In 1989 the Department of Education announced it wanted to give out grant money for bilingual literacy programs.
Rodriguez-Brown, a specialist in second-language education, read the department's announcement in the Federal Register and joined forces with Shanahan, whose focus is reading education and literacy. They hammered out the FLAME proposal and sent it to the federal government.
FLAME would increase the availability of reading materials in Mexican American homes, encourage parents to be better role models regarding literacy, and include Spanish literacy as a value along with English literacy.
Impressed, the Education Department gave a grant of $ 135,000, over three years, to FLAME.
The program flourished. By fall, 1991, FLAME was at three locations in Pilsen. The next step, as Rodriguez-Brown and Shanahan saw it, was to begin training participating parents so they could run the program themselves.
But the federal government would only give money if FLAME was relocated.
While the idea of backing the program in a different area was attractive, the UIC professors did not want to leave the parents in Pilsen high and dry.
So, while accepting the government money to start up FLAME in a West Side Chicago neighborhood (and managing to redirect $25,000 to keep the Pilsen FLAME going), they began searching for additional funding.
They turned to Pat Wager, UIC's liaison with the philanthropic community. Wager scanned the Taft Directory—listings of corporate philanthropies and the type of efforts each supports. Corporations, striving to have the biggest impact with limited budgets, tend to direct giving to specific, narrow fields.
Kraft General Foods has three target areas: hunger, the arts and, as Wager carefully noted, education, particularly involving parent-child interaction.
Wager called Grant, the manager of community affairs at Kraft, who said FLAME sounded interesting. Grant doesn't pretend her company gives away millions of dollars out of a warm, fuzzy, anthropomorphic big-heartedness.
"Our business is here," she said. "You need educated, capable employees. For that, the schools have to be in good shape, plus community infrastructure, transportation, capital needs. All this is working to help customers."
Janet Kuhl Marcuson, a professional grant writer in Wager's office, spent nine months researching and revising 20 drafts of the FLAME proposal.
In June, a 14-page proposal was sent to Kraft, one of 346 they received in "a pretty average month," according to Grant.
The proposal passed before a temporary employee who opens the mail that pours into Kraft's foundation. She rejected 176 requests, responding to each with one of 10 form letters saying: No, Kraft does not donate products. No, Kraft does not give money to individuals. No, Kraft does not underwrite benefits.
The remaining June proposals, including FLAME's, moved upward to community affairs administrator Linda Burda, who gave them closer scrutiny.
"The first determinant is: Does it meet our focus area?" Grant said. "Does it meet the budget? Does it conflict with other things we fund? Is it redundant to other things we fund? Is it a good organization?"
Then there is the influence of what certain Chicago ward heelers used to call "Vitamin P" - power. Grant doesn't pretend that the influence of powerful Kraft executive sponsors won't affect a proposal.
"It isn't the driving force, but it helps," said Grant, pointing to a request to sponsor a cooking station at a benefit gala—not something the company would normally do.
By July, the FLAME proposal was on Grant's desk, and she set up a visit.
"It's a very important part of the job, not only to learn who they are, but they can meet somebody from Kraft General Foods," Grant said.
The site visit went smoothly. The Mexican American women, eager for the program to continue, directly lobbied Grant in their limited English.
"One woman, very shy, very hesitant, walked up to me and said: 'Do this,' " Grant remembers. "I was very impressed with the program."
Things moved quickly after that. Because FLAME was seeking $ 114,609 over three years (Thursday's check was a first installment), Grant had to meet with her board of directors.
They gave approval, and, after the congratulatory phone calls, the traditional check presentation ceremony was set up. About 20 women and 40 or so children sat at tables at the Lozano library. A festive Mexican buffet, prepared by the women, was spread out on a long table. Before handing over the large ceremonial check, Grant discreetly slipped the real, rose-colored Kraft General Foods check to Rodriguez-Brown, who put it in her purse.
"What this check means is there will be English classes this year," said Shanahan, and everyone clapped.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 9, 1992.