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Why LISC? It Starts With a Cold Call

May 30, 2012

(Michele Sullivan is vice president of the Caterpillar Foundation. A version of this post appears on the LISC Web site.)

Peoria_skylineNot unlike most cities in the U.S., Peoria, Illinois, and its surrounding communities have areas where existing businesses have left and economic development has ceased, housing is crumbling, crime and unemployment are high, and public transportation is inadequate or nonexistent. Yet, the residents of these areas have the same desires as everyone else. They want a safe place to live and raise their children, a job they like, local neighborhood businesses to shop in, and a neighborhood they can be proud of.

Peoria is blessed to have a strong base of nonprofit organizations to help families in blighted neighborhoods that are struggling with the problems mentioned above. While the Caterpillar Foundation supports many of these organizations, we recently found ourselves asking, Why aren't these neighborhoods thriving?

As we thought about that question, it became evident that nonprofits and stakeholders in the community were treating symptoms, not causes, and that the greater Peoria area needed an organization to help redevelop blighted neighborhoods and address challenges such as affordable housing and high crime rates. What's more, those efforts were needed not just within Peoria proper; poverty and high unemployment extend beyond the city limits. Which got us wondering: Does such an organization exist?

Be honest. Everyone rolls their eyes when a cold call comes in. Steve Sagner, head of development for LISC, came calling in February 2011. LISC was fundraising and wanted an investment from the Caterpillar Foundation. Doubt turned to curiosity. As the conversation turned to what LISC had to offer, my team and I began to think this was just what Peoria needed. With a thirty-year track record of revitalizing communities in need, LISC would take the lead in mobilizing all available resources for job training, business development, affordable housing, child care, and more. By the end of the call, LISC agreed to do an assessment of Peoria for a possible future office.

The assessment was soon completed and the news got better. LISC agreed that Peoria fit its organizational model. And while it admitted it had not worked in a metro area which required a rural and urban strategy, it was confident it could deliver results. To be honest, we weren't sure. But the day LISC program VP Anika Goss-Foster took us to visit the Auburn Gresham neighborhood in Chicago was the day all the dots got connected. When we saw that thriving neighborhood, the 'Net center full of people on computers working on resumes and reading USA Today, the new Walgreen's, the financial office for residents, and, most importantly, the pride of local residents, we knew that making an investment in bringing LISC to Peoria was the right idea at the right time.

Caterpillar, Inc. -- and by extension the Caterpillar Foundation -- promotes the health, welfare, and economic stability of communities around the world where its employees work and live. One such community is Peoria, Illinois, our hometown and global headquarters. LISC's expertise and experience, coupled with Peoria's strong nonprofit base and support from the city and county, has convinced us that the residents of the greater Peoria area have a much brighter future to look forward to.

Has your view about cold calls changed? Ours sure has.

-- Michele Sullivan

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