It happens every year. As the holidays approach, you feel the urge to support a cause you care about—the environment, say, or education, or animals. But which nonprofits working toward those causes are not just good, but great? And, assuming you want to keep your giving close to home, which of those top nonprofits are based right here in the Chicago area?

We posed the first of these questions to Sandra Miniutti, vice president of Charity Navigator, a respected independent organization that analyzes and rates U.S. charities. While a good charity may certainly meet a need or fill a void in the community, she explained, “a great one is demonstrably efficient, ethical, and effective.” In other words, it measures its progress against clear goals, tells you exactly how it spends its money, and maximizes every dollar you give it. Chicago set out to find the best ones.

Our first criterion: The charity must be headquartered in the greater Chicago area and have 501(c)(3) status from the Internal Revenue Service, meaning that any donations to it are tax deductible. From that group, we eliminated any that were very small, lacked much of a track record, or didn’t actively solicit donations from the public. (Specifically, with the help of Charity Navigator, we cut those that could not provide tax filings for the past seven years, had revenue of less than $1 million in the most recent fiscal year, or got most of their funding from government grants, fees, or a single person.)

Of the 277 charities that remained, we discarded those that did not earn Charity Navigator’s top ranking of four stars—an award that’s achieved only by those charities that “exhibit sound fiscal management practices and a strong commitment to accountability and transparency,” Miniutti says.

From there, we talked to nonprofit consultants and community leaders and did additional research on each charity. We applied four tests: Does the organization have a unique mission? Does it have significant data to show its impact? Does it have a strong Chicago connection? (That winnowed out several national organizations.) And, finally, how big a hole would be left if it disappeared? The answers resulted in the list that begins below.



Alliance for the Great Lakes
2014 spending: $2.7 million
Percentage spent on programming: 81


This 45-year-old organization is a powerful force helping to protect the Great Lakes through advocacy, education, and restoration. And it’s achieving tangible results. For example, it helped push for the groundbreaking commitment made in June by the governors of Michigan and Ohio and the premier of Ontario to reduce pollution flowing into Lake Erie by 40 percent. And thanks in part to the organization’s work, last year Illinois became the first state to pass a law phasing out the manufacture and sale of products, such as body scrubs containing microbeads, that cause pollution in the water supply and can be mistaken for food by marine organisms. The group’s annual fall Adopt-a-Beach cleanup brings together nearly 15,000 volunteers in all eight Great Lakes states to pick up some 52,000 pounds of debris from beaches and shorelines (and provides researchers with valuable data about sources of pollution). Next up: fighting to restore the natural divide between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River basin.


Alzheimer’s Association
2014 spending: $254.0 million
Percentage spent on programming: 73

Eager to help cure this common and profoundly disabling disease? So is this massive national nonprofit. Since 1980, the Alzheimer’s Association has directed more than $350 million in funding to 2,300 research studies. One of its innovations: TrialMatch, a free online service that connects patients with clinical trials for which they might be eligible.

Gilda’s Club Chicago
2014 spending: $1.8 million
Percentage spent on programming: 76

Saturday Night Live cast member Gilda Radner famously said that having cancer gave her membership in an elite club she’d rather not belong to. After the comedian died in 1989, her loved ones founded this nonprofit, which in the Chicagoland area provides more than 350 free activities each month: support and networking groups, social events, arts and crafts, and family programs. Membership is open to those with or affected by cancer, including friends and loved ones. Visits to the Chicago location (there are separate entities in several cities across the country) have more than doubled over the past three years, to some 25,000.


Hunger & Homelessness

Inspiration Corporation worker Latepa Long
Inspiration Corporation worker Latepa Long

Bridge Communities
2014 spending: $3.0 million
Percentage spent on programming: 82

More than just a housing program, Bridge envelops its clients—homeless families and individuals in DuPage County—in support: two years in a comfortably furnished apartment, financial coaching, career advice, interview preparation, therapy, and even nutritional counseling to help them get back on track.

Cara Program
2014 spending: $6.7 million
Percentage spent on programming: 75

Consider Cara an on-ramp for the unemployed. The rigorous program—training lasts an average of four to five months and teaches skills such as team building and financial literacy—prepares its graduates (5,000 since 1991) to enter the work force and stay there. Cara also runs for-profit social enterprises Cleanslate, a neighborhood beautification business, and TCP Staffing, a temp firm where the program’s graduates can get valuable job experience. Beyond that, the organization has partnerships with a whopping 120-plus Chicago-area employers, including Marriott, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Eataly.

Greater Chicago Food Depository
2014 spending: $107.7 million
Percentage spent on programming: 94

An astonishing one in six Cook County residents benefits from this food bank’s services every year. Founded in 1979, it distributes donated and purchased food through a countywide network of 650 pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters. Impressively, this mainstay goes right where the need is: Its Producemobile delivers fresh fruits and vegetables to food deserts, and its popular Lunch Bus serves free healthy lunches to kids throughout the city in the summer.


Inspiration Corporation
2014 spending: $5.1 million
Percentage spent on programming: 89

In 1989, police officer Lisa Nigro decided to do something about the marginalized populations she saw on her beat (many chronically homeless or with criminal records). She founded Inspiration Corporation, where housing, training, and job placement are the recipe for success. Last year, it put 123 Chicagoans to work, including at its own Inspiration Kitchens in Uptown and East Garfield Park. Latepa Long (pictured above in late September) works at the food court in University Center in the South Loop. Without Inspiration Corporation, “I would have been out on the street,” she says.

Northern Illinois Food Bank
2014 spending: $123.5 million
Percentage spent on programming: 98

There’s plenty of need outside Cook County—and that’s the focus of this far-flung network of pantries and soup kitchens, which provided more than 50 million meals last year. It serves Boone, DeKalb, DuPage, Grundy, Kane, Kankakee, Kendall, Lake, McHenry, Ogle, Stephenson, Will, and Winnebago counties, where Feeding America reports one in seven residents are at risk of hunger.


PAWS volunteers bathing dogs

PAWS Chicago
2014 spending: $10.6 million
Percentage spent on programming: 91

In 1997, when this grassroots organization was founded, more than 42,000 dogs, cats, and other pets were euthanized in the City of Chicago. Last year, fewer than 10,000 were. The credit for that huge drop goes largely to PAWS, which runs the largest pet adoption and foster programs in the city. (Above, volunteers bathe canine friends on the rooftop of the Lincoln Park Adoption Center in late September.) With its Lurie Clinic and mobile surgical van, PAWS also spayed or neutered 18,290 pets in 2014, offering nearly three-quarters of the procedures free of charge.

2014 spending: $1.5 million
Percentage spent on programming: 81

Though much smaller than PAWS (see description at left), this Grayslake organization goes above and beyond for each animal it serves and plays an important role in rescuing animals from “kill” shelters (it saved 308 last year). Programs include medical and behavioral assistance, adoption services, and referrals to low-cost spay and neuter services. Says Dominique Allion, president of the board: “Since we treat any medical condition and provide animals in need of special surgery all the vet care they need, our vet bills are rather high.” Attention, feline fans: A complete remodel of the center’s free-roam cat room is underway.

Justice & Equality

Chicago Legal Clinic
2014 spending: $3.9 million
Percentage spent on programming: 94

This 34-year-old clinic has evolved into a major provider of low-cost or pro bono legal assistance, serving an impressive 25,000 clients last year. Its sliding-scale fee structure is a particular boon to the working poor, who make a little too much to qualify for free legal services from the state.


Roger Baldwin Foundation of ACLU
2014 spending: $3.3 million
Percentage spent on programming: 89

Illinois is the only state in the Midwest where women can get reproductive health care free from many burdensome restrictions. Fighting to keep it that way is the Illinois chapter of the ACLU—which since 1969 has been committed to defending all civil liberties guaranteed by the federal and state constitutions. In August of last year, the organization secured an agreement with the City of Chicago that will give transgender city workers insurance coverage for transition-related health care. Additionally, the nonprofit has been a huge force in the fight to end juvenile solitary confinement as we know it. “Working together, volunteer and staff attorneys protect the rights of tens of thousands of people and often set national precedents,” notes Edwin C. Yohnka, director of communications and public policy.

Community Resources

Center for Enriched Living
2014 spending: $2.2 million
Percentage spent on programming: 72

This center was created in the late ’60s when two mothers couldn’t find afterschool programs for their disabled children. It served 468 members this year, who on average spent 200 hours in its programs. In June 2016, it will unveil a $3.8 million renovation of its Riverwoods facility, which will use the principles of universal design: Everything will be accessible to people at any stage of life and any level of ability.

Center on Halsted
2014 spending: $5.1 million
Percentage spent on programming: 78

The largest LGBT community center in the Midwest, Center on Halsted sees more than 1,000 people come through its (LEED Silver–certified) doors each day. From cooking classes and yoga to HIV testing and therapy, it’s a hub of activity and advocacy in Lake View. Last year, it opened Town Hall Apartments on Halsted Street, the area’s first LGBT-friendly affordable housing project. It also opened a senior center on Addison Street, in the former Town Hall police station—the very spot where some older members of the community spent nights after raids on Halsted Street’s gay bars.


Kids & Education

Big Shoulders Fund
2014 spending: $20.7 million
Percentage spent on programming: 92

Supporting inner-city Catholic schools through scholarships, teacher development, capital improvements, and more has been the mission of Big Shoulders since its founding in 1986. The nonprofit reports that 88 percent of grads from the 82 schools it funds enroll in college (far exceeding the 51 percent national average for low-income, high-minority urban high schools according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center).

SOS Children’s Villages Illinois
2014 spending: $10.6 million
Percentage spent on programming: 84

SOS has completely rethought the foster care model. Children who come to live in one of its three “villages”—in Roosevelt Square, Auburn Gresham, and Lockport—stay with their biological siblings in a private home. A full-time, professionally trained foster parent lives with them, and the village offers support and strength. SOS served 698 children in 2014.


Chicago Shakespeare Theater students and teachers performing
Chicago Shakespeare Theater students and teachers performing. Photo: Liz Lauren

Chicago Botanic Garden
2014 spending: $40.0 million
Percentage spent on programming: 81

More than a million visitors each year enjoy this breathtaking 385-acre site—but the Chicago Botanic Garden is about much more than pretty plants. Its Windy City Harvest program, which operates at 14 locations around Chicagoland, provides transitional jobs, training, and access to freshly grown food. And its $26 million Regenstein Foundation Learning Campus, opening in July 2016, will educate students from preschool through doctorate level in everything from horticulture to sustainability.

Chicago Public Library Foundation
2014 spending: $6.3 million
Percentage spent on programming: 75

Founded in 1986 by Cindy Pritzker and other civic leaders, this public-private partnership works to enrich the collections and programs of the Chicago Public Library. Thanks to its funding, says CEO Rhona Frazin, the Teacher in the Library program provided 85,296 hours of free homework help to Chicago kids during the 2014–15 school year—a 15 percent increase over the previous year. Next up: plans to open pre-K active learning centers at the Harold Washington Library Center and 14 other branches.


Chicago Shakespeare Theater
2014 spending: $14.7 million
Percentage spent on programming: 84

Which organization is the single largest employer of Chicago actors? Chicago Shakes. Though the Bard’s 38 plays constitute the company’s core offerings, devotees are also treated to other classical and original works. And don’t forget the award-winning education program. Each year students and teachers (pictured above in 2013) from Chicago public schools create a production inspired by Shakespeare that is performed on the main stage. The mission, says founder Barbara Gaines, is to “change lives through this work—one person at a time.”

Joffrey Ballet
2014 spending: $16.3 million
Percentage spent on programming: 91

Happy 20th! This internationally acclaimed ballet company moved to Chicago in 1995 following residencies in New York and Los Angeles. To celebrate its anniversary, the Joffrey debuted 20 for 20!, a series of performances in the community, with partners such as the Field Museum and the Garfield Park Conservatory. The company is doing its part to make ballet relevant and accessible to young culture seekers: This year’s Millennials program, a series of three ballets by contemporary choreographers, featured discounted tickets ($20). The company is also raising the barre for young dancers, offering 110 programs in 44 Chicago public schools.