Category: News

CharityWatch promotes informed charitable giving

Having accurate information to make wise giving decisions has never been more important. And that’s central to the mission of CharityWatch, an independent watchdog organization that does in-depth analysis of nonprofits so donors can give confidently to organizations where their gifts will have the greatest impact.

Launched in 1992 as the American Institute of Philanthropy, the founder, Daniel Borochoff, saw a tremendous need for an independent monitor to oversee charitable giving due to a lack of publicly available information at that time.

Located in Chicago since 2002, CharityWatch educates the public about charitable giving by regularly updating its reports for over 600 nonprofit organizations in its rating system; every year it adds about fifteen new charities. CharityWatch also publishes articles on its website; they along with its ratings and reports on top-rated charities are freely available to view.

And what makes Charity Watch’s ratings incredibly valuable is the detailed and thorough analysis of financial statements that goes into each one. In fact, Congress has called upon CharityWatch multiple times for expert testimony regarding the nonprofit sector and charitable giving.

So you can have confidence that gifts you make to CharityWatch’s top-rated nonprofits will support mission-related work and not fraud or wrongdoing.

Because its independence is essential, CharityWatch is funded primarily by small contributions from individual donors.  One way you can support CharityWatch is to join as a member for $50 annually, which provides full access to content on its website as well as two issues of its bi-annual paper publication, the Charity Rating Guide & Watchdog Report.

And if you happen to work for a company or foundation, you can join as an organizational member. The suggested donation level is $500; however, contributions in any amount are greatly appreciated.

Along with rating nonprofits, CharityWatch frequently partners with investigative journalists and helps them research wrongdoing in the nonprofit sector. Staff speak regularly with media such as the New York Times, Newsweek, CNN, and the Associated Press.

CharityWatch partnered with 60 Minutes on a high profile collaboration that exposed the financial improprieties of Greg Mortenson, author of “Three Cups of Tea and Pennies for Charity.”

It’s a great example of the organization’s dynamic work; you can view the 60 Minutes segment and see more examples here.

North Branch Works is a proud neighbor of CharityWatch in the Green Exchange and thrilled to welcome them as our newest member. We highly recommend reaching out to CharityWatch if your business wants to review its charitable giving.

Staff is also exploring the possibility of providing technical assistance services to companies related to their giving programs. Stay tuned for future partnership opportunities.

And be sure to follow CharityWatch for the latest news and updates on Twitter and Facebook.

Laurie Styron is the Executive Director of CharityWatch, taking over from the founder who retired in February 2020.

With questions and to connect with CharityWatch, please reach out here.





MBDA Export Center connects minority businesses to Africa

The Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) Export Center is a dynamic resource that builds mutually beneficial partnerships between minority businesses and thriving markets in Africa.

Because 95% of consumers are located outside of the United States, international markets offer incredible opportunities for minority businesses and entrepreneurs. And by 2025, Africa is projected to have 1.4 billion consumers with an average age of 30.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce and operated by the Chicago MSDC, the MBDA Export Center connects minority businesses with commercial and government buyers, financing and bonding resources, and domestic and global teaming partners.

And if you are a minority business, you can access technical assistance across a variety of important business topics such as identifying new global markets, export referral services, export capital, and risk insurance.

Some of the countries you can connect with through the MBDA Export Center include Gabon, South Africa, Zambia, Ethiopia, and Nigeria.

Prior to the pandemic, you could visit the MBDA Export Center at 216 W Jackson Blvd. Suite 600. Currently, the Export Center has pivoted to making all of its programming available virtually.

Speaking of which, the MBDA Export Center just wrapped up a major virtual conference, the 2020 Diaspora Investment and Trade Deal Event (see below right), which connected minority businesses with opportunities to engage with and learn from businesses and government officials from Africa and the African Diaspora.

Over the course of its five-year history, the Chicago MBDA Export Center has served over a thousand firms, providing business counseling and important connections to major-buying organizations in Africa.

And it’s an especially important time to make these connections: U.S. trade to and from Africa has tripled over the last decade; U.S. exports to sub-Saharan Africa now top $21 billion and sub-Saharan Africa is expected to grow 7% GDP annually.

For these reasons and many others, Chicago is fortunate to be home to the MBDA Export Center. It’s one of only four centers funded by the MBDA across the country with the mission of ensuring minority businesses have access to resources that help them compete in local and global markets.

And the Chicago MSDC and MBDA Export Center recently launched the Pathways to Africa Initiative, which is designed to promote American companies doing business in Africa.

The MBDA Export Center is a wonderful resource that compliments Chicago MSDC’s work to certify, develop and advocate for minority-owned businesses as well as the comprehensive services offered by the MBDA Business Center.

For the latest updates, be sure to follow the MBDA Export Center on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

North Branch Works is proud to partner with the Chicago MSDC, MBDA Business Center, and MBDA Export Center in our work to grow, develop, and support minority businesses in our service area.

To connect with the MBDA Export Center, please contact Patricia Hanes, Director Export Center, 312-755-2553,


City economic development programs return great value

As the City of Chicago begins to develop its budget for next year, it’s important to keep in mind that economic development programs for neighborhood businesses have never been more valuable.

Because the pandemic and recent social unrest have affected businesses in numerous ways, organizations like North Branch Works require flexibility to meet ever-changing business needs.

Every day, we provide a variety of crucial support services to businesses as a delegate city agency through two programs: the Neighborhood Business Development Center (NBDC), funded by the Chicago Department of Business and Consumer Protection, and the Local Industrial Retention Initiative (LIRI), funded by the Chicago Department of Planning and Development.

And to give you an idea of our annual impact, we consult with over 108 business through LIRI and over 72 new businesses through NBDC. Our program area includes all or parts of the following city wards: 2, 27, 32, 33, 35, 42, 43, 44, and 47.

Our NBDC services include helping new businesses navigate the city’s licensing process, transition from startups into mature and growing businesses, and access financial resources such as grants and low-interest loans.

Recently, North Branch Works promoted grants available through Chicago’s Together Now Fund and the State of Illinois’ Business Interruption Grant (BIG) program. As a result, one of our member businesses secured a $20k grant to help cover the costs of having to suspend operations during the pandemic.

Our NBDC work also allows us to build strong relationships with businesses and identify candidates for our low-interest small business loan program, which is another resource that can be leveraged for business growth.

And through LIRI, we advocate for and support larger industrial businesses. Retaining industrial jobs is crucial because they pay family-sustaining wages and require middle skills—often only two years beyond high school.

As a central part of LIRI, North Branch Works regularly convenes Infrastructure Task Force meetings to identify and push for business-friendly improvements to the built environment.

Some of our recent wins include the installation of a new stop sign on Goose Island, providing up to date information about the upcoming Division Street Bridge project as well as the update to the Halsted Triangle Plan, and participating in the Lincoln Yards Community Advisory Council.

The LIRI program also allows us to connect businesses directly to valuable city programs such as the Small Business Improvement Fund (SBIF), TIFWorks, and TIF 50/50. These programs can cover all or some of the costs of building upgrades for your business and training your workforce.

North Branch Works urges Mayor Lightfoot and City Council Members to commit to increasing funding for these essential neighborhood economic development programs in the 2021 budget.

These economic development programs support our vision of a thriving business sector along the North Branch that would bring many benefits to Chicago including family-sustaining jobs, increased revenues to the city, and a strong and healthy consumer base.

If you are a business and would like to explore how our services could benefit you, please contact Steve Simmons, Director of Business and Economic Development, 773-929-5552 x2226,

Small Accessible Repairs for Seniors program strengthens communities

Being able to live comfortably at home has never been more important. And for this reason, we’re grateful to operate the Small Accessible Repairs for Seniors (SARFS) program, which allows us to make upgrades to help residents enjoy a high quality of life.

Funded by the Chicago Department of Housing, SARFS is a free program for eligible seniors. To qualify for SARFS, you must be at least 60 years old and meet the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development’s income requirement, which is an annual income that’s not higher than $58,250 for two-people.

And you can participate in the program if you are a homeowner or renter, living in a single-family home or multi-family buildings with one-to-four units.

SARFS covers the cost of repairing and installing safety equipment, security improvements, and other items that make it easier to live at home. We can fix and/or install fire extinguishers as well as smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

And we can make improvements to floors, steps, and doors. The program also pays for the cost of accessibility upgrades such as grab bars, transfer benches, tub-assist bars, chair-height toilets, faucets, handrails and handheld showers.

North Branch Works is one of several city delegate agencies that offer the program. We can work with you if you live in one of the following city wards: 1, 2, 24, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 35, and 37.

If you happen to live outside these wards, please call us anyway as we’re happy to connect you with the agency in your neighborhood.

In fact, we often make referrals to the Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County (CEDA), 311, and the City of Chicago’s Roof and Porch Programs.

Our dedicated program manager, Misty LeBlanc (pictured below), walks seniors through the eligibility process from the initial phone call, meets them in their homes for consultations, and does well-being checks during extreme temperatures.

When you come into our program, you gain the many benefits of a community that cares deeply about you.

Recently, our field manager, Reggie Hamilton (pictured below right), was in East Garfield Park, wrapping up a job that included multiple repairs such as replacing drywall and rebuilding an external door frame.

Because we’re fortunate to have a carpenter on our staff, we can complete jobs quickly after receiving approval from the city.

Prior to the pandemic, North Branch Works regularly completed jobs on thirty-three homes annually per our city contract.

Despite COVID-19, we have been working hard to finish as many jobs as possible because we know they make a major contribution to quality of life; we’re on track to complete twenty-homes this year.

North Branch Works is proud to be completing our tenth year of running the SARFS program. And we’d love to increase the number of jobs we can complete due to high demand in our neighborhoods.

Toward that end, we’re actively looking for funding to expand the program.

With inquiries/questions about SARFS, please contact Misty LeBlanc, Program Manager,, 773-929-5552 x2235.

Chicago MBDA Business Center, an incredible resource for minority businesses

During these challenging times, ensuring minority businesses have access to resources to grow and flourish is essential. And we’re fortunate in Chicago to have a wealth of resources available to minority businesses at the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) Chicago Business Center, located at 216 W. Jackson Boulevard, Suite 600.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the MBDA Business Center is operated by the Chicago Minority Supplier Development Council (MSDC), an organization with a successful history of growing and supporting minority business enterprises (MBEs).

The MBDA Business Center connects minority businesses with capital, contracts, and emerging markets. And it supports the minority business community by advocating on its behalf and developing partnerships with local, state, and federal government agencies, major corporations, and banks with the overall goal of creating larger and more strategic minority entrepreneurs.

The MBDA Business Center carries out its mission by providing workshops and consultations across a diverse range of business topics such as financing, bonding assistance, mergers and acquisitions, education and training, networking, advocacy, procurement, and export and international trade assistance.

The MBDA Business Center has achieved great success to date, having assisted over 1200 MBEs obtain $2.5 billion in contracts, $800 million in financing, and create over 5,000 family-sustaining jobs.

If you happen to be a minority business owner, we encourage you to take advantage of the resources available at the MBDA Business Center, which works with businesses of all sizes and can help you connect with major-buying organizations and successfully expand your business.

And if your business is looking for an equity partner, corporate trainings, and information on how to diversify your supply chain—the MBDA Business Center can assist you and would love to discuss partnering with you.

Prior to the pandemic, you could visit the center for appointments and take workshops. Currently, the MBDA Business Center has pivoted to providing its resources and technical support virtually.

And in response to COVID-19, the Chicago MSDC launched a new initiative, the MBDA CARES Act Center; it offers training, education and counseling to help small and minority businesses recover from the pandemic. The CARES Act provides fast and direct economic assistance to American workers, families, and small businesses and preserves jobs in American industries.

North Branch Works is proud to partner with the Chicago MBDA Business Center, MBDA Cares Act Center and Chicago MSDC in our work to grow and support minority businesses in our service area.

To connect with the Chicago MBDA Center, please contact Dave Thomas (pictured right), Operator/Project Director, 312-755-2563,

For more information about the MBDA Cares Act Center, please contact:
Reuben Hamilton, MBDA Cares Act Coordinator, 773-554-9338, and
Lenora Harris, MBDA Cares Act Program Assistant, 773-530-9076,

Image credits: Chicago MBDA Business Center

Connecting North Branch Works members to financial resources

During these challenging times for businesses, our staff is working hard to identify city, state, and federal funding opportunities and help our members secure them.

Recently, we were thrilled to help two members successfully obtain $20k grants from the State of Illinois’ Business Interruption Grant (BIG) program. This grant will help the business cover the cost of having to suspend operations between March and April due to the pandemic.

Our staff did the research and determined our members were eligible. Then we contacted our members; we’re grateful they applied promptly. Along the way, we facilitated a connection between the business owner and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, which proved valuable when the state later decided to extend the grant deadline, making it possible for them to apply.

It’s great to see state resources coming into our service area to support our member businesses. And we’re continuing to encourage and support members in applying for opportunities like Chicago’s Together Now Fund, which recently accepted applications from businesses and nonprofits for grants of up to $4,000 to cover operating expenses.

Another financial resource to keep in mind is our low-interest Small Business Loan program. We can make loans of up to $25,000 to startups and up to $50,000 to established businesses. And in some cases, we can loan larger amounts.

There’s nothing we’d like more than to support businesses right now with these resources. Please find more information about the loan program here, including the list of eligible neighborhoods.

One of the best member benefits we provide is our staff capacity to find grants and valuable opportunities for your business. We understand the demands of running a business likely consume all your time.

For this reason, we’d love to support you by doing research and advocacy on your behalf and connecting you to other businesses in the North Branch community so dollars are spent locally as much as possible.

And we’d be grateful for the opportunity to help your business secure funding like we did recently with the BIG grant. It’s a great example of the value of being a North Branch Works member.

If you’d like to join North Branch Works, please contact Steve Simmons, 773-929-5552 x2226,

ChicagoMSDC strengthens minority businesses

During this time of social unrest, many businesses are looking for opportunities to advance a racially equitable future. Fortunately, the city is home to the Chicago Minority Supplier Development Council (CMSDC), a corporate sponsorship-based organization with a successful history of growing and cultivating minority-owned business enterprises (MBEs).

ChicagoMSDC plays four primary roles; it certifies, develops, connects, and advocates for MBEs. The organization has corporate members and creates partnerships between major-buying organizations and minority-owned suppliers.

Founded in 1968 after social unrest rocked Chicago, ChicagoMSDC responded by launching the Chicago Business Opportunity Day, which brought together corporate and community leaders determined to create opportunities for low-income communities.

As a result of its success, this event was re-named the Chicago Business Opportunity Fair, which continues to flourish to this day as the organization’s premier annual event and is wrapping up its 53rd Annual Event.

And ChicagoMSDC is one of 23 affiliates of the National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC) which was founded in 1972 to increase procurement and business opportunities for minority businesses of all sizes.

Currently, ChicagoMSDC’s members include over 250 public-and-private-sector buying organizations and nearly 1,000 minority-owned businesses in Chicago, Northwest Indiana, and St. Louis. And this partnership is incredibly successful; buying members report spending over $3 billion annually while MBEs employ over 20,000 workers in family-sustaining jobs.

In order to certify as an MBE, at least 51% of a business must be owned by people who are Asian, Black, Hispanic, or Native American.  If your business meets this requirement, you don’t have to do it alone; ChicagoMSDC can help you–it certifies over 300 MBEs annually, usually taking about 90 days to certify.

And August is National Black Business Month. Be sure to follow ChicagoMSDC on Twitter and Facebook for success stories of Black-owned businesses in the Chicago region. You can also look them up by searching #blackbizmonthchi and #chicagomsdc.

Recently, Chicago MSDC welcomed a new President and CEO, J. Vincent Williams (right). He brings extensive experience managing small business development and succession and building valuable community partnerships from the public and private sector. He knows that we have an unprecedented moment to push for supplier diversity.

The good news is many businesses and community leaders are looking to ChicagoMSDC for leadership during these challenging times. Vince and his staff have never been busier.

North Branch Works is honored to partner with ChicagoMSDC in our work to grow and strengthen minority-owned businesses in our service area. We highly recommend reaching out to ChicagoMSDC if you’d like to get involved and support minority-owned business development and family-sustaining jobs in Chicagoland.

Please contact Shondra Watson-Wilson, Director of Strategic Partnerships, 773-755-2552 or

Image credits: Chicago MSDC

Rockwell on the River, an incredible destination along Chicago River

Summer is not over yet; you can have plenty of socially-distant fun on the cobblestone streets at Rockwell on the River, a dynamic craft food and events space in Avondale along the North Branch of the Chicago River.

Located at 3057 N. Rockwell St. in between Elston and Belmont Avenues, the company began seven years ago when developer Paul Levy repurposed industrial buildings from what had been a tannery.

Reflecting his vision of an artisanal food space like no other in the city, the complex has a diverse and growing mix of local and family-owned small businesses including Metropolitan Brewing’s taproom and brewery, Metropolis Coffee, and Judson and Moore Distillery.

The company’s long-term goal is to be known as a destination for the best food Chicago has to offer and an asset to the Avondale neighborhood.

And Rockwell on the River expects to add several new food-based businesses to its lineup soon. If you happen to be in the food industry, the complex offers customized kitchen spaces available for rent and often hosts pop-up cafes.

Currently, Catered by Design offers a pop up café on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. And please take advantage of the company’s two-for-one sandwich deal, using this QVR code.

After stopping by food vendors, you can take in the scenic Chicago River and see nature up close by renting kayaks from Wateriders Kayak Rentals and boats from Chicago Electric Boats—both companies operate from the complex’s dock behind the buildings.

And eventually the plan is to add a Chicago Water Taxi stop operated by Wendella to the Rockwell dock.

Because this stretch of the Chicago River is used primarily for recreation, it’s a great place to escape from the grid and enjoy the natural world, including blue herons, which were spotted in the area recently.

And if you visit, you can rest assured knowing all the businesses at Rockwell on the River follow strict COVID-19 protocols, including requiring social distancing and face masks, and cleaning surfaces regularly.

Along with providing space for food businesses to succeed, Rockwell on the River has a breathtaking 20,000 sq. foot event space overlooking the river (see below right) that can be rented for weddings, corporate gatherings, and galas.

The grounds also feature beautiful offices that can accommodate firms of all sizes. Available offices range in space from hundreds to thousands of square feet.

North Branch Works is proud to welcome Rockwell on the River as our newest member. We’re grateful our members on Rockwell Street can safely operate and excited about partnering with them to strengthen existing businesses, attract new ones, and bring family-sustaining jobs to the neighborhood.

If you’d like to rent space or connect with Rockwell on the River, please contact Jeff DeLong, Director of Marketing & Programming, 312-498-6382,

Image credits: Rockwell on the River

Join Wendella Boats for tours & events

Because of COVID-19, the long-term viability of Chicago’s small businesses in the events and entertainment field like Wendella Boats depends upon the support of local residents and businesses.

A family-owned, multi-generational small business, Wendella Boats offers breath-taking architecture boat tours, hosts corporate events, and operates the popular water taxis which safely transport people to multiple destinations along the Chicago River.

Founded in 1935 by a Swedish immigrant who bravely purchased the company’s first boat during the Great Depression, Wendella Boats played a big role in helping Chicago and the country through major events such as CTA worker strikes, World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and 9-11.

Prior to the pandemic, Wendella Boats employed over three-hundred people and kept them in jobs year-round by having them repair boats during the winter months.

And these are good jobs that pay competitive wages without requiring much education or experience beyond high school.  As an employee benefit and workforce development strategy, the company provides scholarships to help employees obtain their Coast Guard credentials.

Now, because revenues have fallen 90%, the company has been forced to reduce its workforce to one-hundred and furlough 60% of its staff. Wendella Boats also recently made the difficult decision to suspend water taxi service. Just last year, water taxis transported 415,000 people to and from various riverfront destinations.

With tourism and hotel occupancy in the central business district down sharply, the company is counting on Chicago residents and local companies to take architecture tours and book events.

The good news is Wendella Boats provides the safest and socially-distant entertainment available. It’s a great way to see Chicago’s awe-inspiring architecture up close, learn more about the city, and relax and unwind.

The company’s ninety-five-foot steel tour boats feature an open air upper deck (pictured above) and plenty of space to comfortably social distance. And you can rest assured knowing the company follows all the COVID-19 protocols, including cleaning the boats vigorously after each trip, taking temperatures of its staff, requiring face masks, and enforcing social distancing.

Because of these measures, only one-hundred people are allowed on the boat per outing. And while following these guidelines is a must for public safety, it also means the company is down one-third of its revenue even if it sells out the boat.

Despite these challenging times, Wendella Boats continues to show its incredible commitment to the city. A portion of the proceeds from its bar service is donated every week to local nonprofits.

North Branch Works is proud to count Wendella Boats among our members and grateful it can safely host tours. We highly recommend hopping on an architecture boat tour, booking an event, and referring family, friends, and colleagues.

Any support you can provide is greatly appreciated. You can purchase tickets for an architecture tour by stopping by Wendella’s dock (see below) at 400 N. Michigan or going here.

Guild Row poised for successful opening

In North Branch Works’ last newsletter, we talked about the challenges of pivoting in a pandemic. This month, let’s consider a different and equally daunting challenge: opening a new business in one.

Located on Rockwell just between Belmont and the Rockwell on the River//Metropolitan Brewing complex, Guild Row is a unique social enterprise founded by local residents Elyse Agnello (also the architect of the multi-building campus), Jim Lasko (civic artist and former Executive Director of Redmoon Theater) and Mike Healy (an award winning urbanist and neighborhood development professional).

These three partners began meeting around Lasko’s kitchen table on Tuesday nights back in 2015. Through many hours of conversation, one truth kept emerging: society and social media had “optimized” connections between people to such an extent as to make them almost meaningless. Similarly, the profligacy of smartphone functionality was becoming such that one could scarcely turn on a light or flush a toilet without the abstract disintermediation of a smartphone screen tuned to the right app.

This was a grain worth cutting against, Agnello, Lasko, and Healy decided.  They set out to build a neighborhood-scale social club predicated on people making real-world connections, around physical things.  Craft and artisanal booms had been the single greatest trend in consumer goods in the prior decade. Why not give people the chance to get their hands dirty trying their own talents and energy at homebrewing, at woodwork, at leathercraft, at bread baking? Why not give people the commodious environs in which to let neighbor-to-neighbor relationships flourish, especially after having gotten their hands dirty together?

The three pitched their concept to close-to-the-ground investors. They scoured Chicago for the right venue: the type of legacy manufacturing structures that had powered the city for generations, and had also formented long-lasting and meaningful relationships between the people who worked within. In late 2016, they connected with Hu-Friedy Mfg. Co., entering into  contract to buy the dental manufacturer’s original home buildings on Rockwell St. just along the Chicago River.

The transfer of ownership was completed in early 2017. Financing was secured in 2018, and Guild Row was born.

A “social club for the artisanally curious,” Guild Row now boasts fixed learning, crafting and programming infrastructure: a teaching kitchen (“The Cooking Lab”), a wood/craft shop, dynamic programming space in which a bevy of Chicago artisans will teach their crafts to Guild Row’s members. Married to these hands-on spaces are the most time-tested of community commons: Guild Hall, a members lounge featuring cafe fare by day and libationary offerings by night; The Rockwell Garden, a marvelous outdoor space replete with fire pit, live flame grills, generous arborture and the like; The Belmont and Avondale Rooms, dynamic spaces for intimate gatherings, programming and more.

The membership community of Guild Row is already starting to flourish, with nearly 200 members as of this writing. Those interested in learning more can avail themselves of one of the club’s regular tours, offered on Fridays at 4 p.m. and Saturdays at 11 a.m.  To register for a tour, please visit

This is a guest blog authored by Mike Healy, co-founder of Guild Row. Mike and his colleagues are invaluable members of NBW and the thriving Rockwell St./Belmont Ave. business community.