Cook County, Illinois: An Agent of Change

Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago, struggles with poverty, unemployment and homelessness -- but a new program inspired by social enterprise aims to help.
Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago, struggles with poverty, unemployment and homelessness — but a new program inspired by social enterprise aims to help.

By Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Marc J. Lane

Cook County is taking a page out of the social enterprise playbook. The county’s new Commission on Social innovation is chartered to incubate actionable policy recommendation that would create and sustain innovative solutions to increasingly daunting social problems. And if a social enterprise is defined the way Social Enterprise Alliance sees it — as an initiative that marries the social mission of a nonprofit or government program with the market-driven approach of a business — the Commission on Social Innovation certainly qualifies.

While public- and social-sector programming has improved the lives of countless people, increasingly so have market-based strategies. So the commission — as thought leader, convener, collaborator and catalyst — will empower social-purpose businesses, impact investors, nonprofits and philanthropists, each defining success in terms of both financial and social returns.

The commission’s tools include all those that social enterprises customarily put to work. It will catalyze impact investment. It will leverage philanthropy. It will be guided by empirical data. It will hear from subject-matter experts and will seek to apply models that have been effective elsewhere. And it will scale those solutions that prove out.

Jesus “Chuy” Garcia
Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, chair of the Cook County Commission on Social Innovation.

The commission has its work cut out for it. The nation’s second largest county, serving 5.25 million residents including all the residents of Chicago, is under enormous stress. The Cook County Department of Public Health recently reported that the county’s south and west districts suffered an unemployment rate of around 12 percent. Nearly 30 percent of the population lives at less than 20 percent of the federal poverty level, and roughly 26 percent of adults over the age of 25 in the Department’s jurisdiction don’t have a high-school diploma. Violent crime plagues the county, particularly in its poorest precincts where too many people are incarcerated and too few rehabilitated.

Yet the commission has good reason to believe its efforts will effectively drive positive social change. Its members are visionary disruptors. And the county’s resources are rich; its talent pool abundant; and its nonprofit, business and investment communities deeply committed to social progress. So, multi-stakeholder and cross-sector social ventures are well within the commission’s reach.

Among the commission’s targets are the Illinois Medical District, the largest in the nation, which the commission plans to help spawn mission-driven, health-related business; and the Illinois International Port District with which the commission intends to collaborate to revitalize the Port of Chicago, collateral damage of de-industrialization. The goal is not only to maximize its commercial potential in concert with other Great Lakes ports, but also to maximize its social potential as an engine of economic development in the distressed communities it borders.

Marc J. Lane, vice chair of the Cook County Commission on Social Innovation.
Marc J. Lane, vice chair of the Cook County Commission on Social Innovation.

The commission will evaluate opportunities to help county residents in food deserts band together to build and maintain neighborhood stores. They might adopt membership models, connect with local businesses or nonprofits, and even rely on newly sanctioned crowd-funding opportunities.

The commission also intends to work constructively with the Cook County Land Bank Authority, supporting the efforts of social entrepreneurs and investors eager to redevelop and reuse vacant, abandoned, foreclosed and tax delinquent properties throughout the county in an effort to promote affordable housing, economic development, conservation and job creation.

And in conjunction with the Chicago chapter of Social Enterprise Alliance, the commission will soon offer capacity building workshops for nonprofit leaders throughout the county.

These initiatives and others the commission considers won’t be zero-sum transactions. The commission’s aim is nothing short of transformation.

The Cook County Commission on Social Innovation hopes to serve as a model for other government units throughout the nation. May our success inspire others.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/Steve Hardy; 2) and 3) Courtesy of the authors 

Jesus “Chuy” Garcia is a member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners and Chair of the Cook County Commission on Social Innovation.

Marc J. Lane, Vice Chair of the Cook County Commission on Social Innovation, is a business and tax attorney and financial advisor whose clients are stakeholders in the evolving Social Impact Ecosystem. Marc is the author of The Mission-Driven Venture. Mlane@marcjlane.com.

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