Chicago Cultural Alliance

Participating Organizations

  • The Field Museum, Chicago, IL
  • Arab American Action Network, Chicago, IL
  • Bronzeville/Black Chicagoan Historical Society, Chicago, IL
  • Cambodian American Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial, Chicago, IL
  • Chicago Japanese American Historical Society, Glenview, IL
  • Institute of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, Chicago, IL
  • Irish American Heritage Center, Chicago, IL
  • Swedish American Museum, Chicago, IL
  • Indo-American Heritage Museum, Chicago , IL
  • Polish Museum of America, Chicago, IL
  • American Indian Center
  • Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture
  • Bronzeville Children’s Museum
  • Casa Aztlán
  • Casa Michoacan
  • Changing Worlds
  • Chicago History Museum
  • Chicago Zoological Society—Brookfield Zoo
  • Children’s Memorial Hospital
  • Chinese American Museum of Chicago
  • Chinese Mutual Aid Association
  • DankHaus, German Cultural Center
  • Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago
  • Filipino American Historical Society of Chicago
  • Illinois Saint Andrews Society
  • Italian Cultural Center at Casa Italia
  • Jane Addams Hull-House Museum
  • Korean American Resource and Cultural Center
  • Latvian Folk Art Museum: no website
  • Mitchell Museum of the American Indian
  • North Park University
  • Pullman State Historic Site
  • Serbian Cultural and Arts Center St. Sava
  • Swahili Institute of Chicago
  • Swedish American Museum
  • Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art
  • Ukrainian National Museum
  • United African Organization
  • University of Chicago—Center for International Studies

Please note that all data below was derived from the collaboration's nomination for the Collaboration Prize. None of the submitted data were independently verified for accuracy.


  • Joint Programming to launch and manage one or more programs
  • Administrative Consolidation to share, exchange, or provide back office services such as accounting, IT, human resources
  • Merger by which governance, programs and administrative functions have been combined but which may or may not have included the integration into a single corporate entity.
Arts and Culture
  • Children and Youth
  • Immigrants
  • Minorities
  • Develop a stronger / more effective "voice"
  • Address unmet and/or escalating community need
  • Leverage complementary strengths and/or assets
  • High / increasing costs
  • Advancement of a shared goal
  • Response to a community need
  • Parent organization
  • Community leader(s) / organization(s)
  • Funded initial exploration
  • Funded implementation
  • To conduct financial due dilligence
  • To facilitate negotiations or discussions that led to the formation of the collaboration
  • To advise on human resources,benefits,or compensation
  • To develop a business plan or strategic plan for the collaboration

The Chicago Cultural Alliance (Alliance) is a membership organization comprising Core Members (CM), small ethnic-based cultural institutions, and Partner Institutions (PI), large cultural, educational, and governmental organizations. Our mission is to effect social change and public understanding of cultural diversity through the first-voice perspectives of CMs. As a sustainable vehicle for collaboration, the Alliance maintains ongoing relationships with CMs and PIs and provides services, programs, and partnerships that strengthen CMs’ infrastructure. The Alliance grew out of The Field Museum’s Cultural Connections, a public education program that explored cultural diversity through comparative cultural events. The participating ethnic institutions recognized the significance of their relationships and the infrastructure developed by The Field Museum, and the value they create together in the marketplace. With monetary support from several funders, the original CMs embarked on the creation of the Alliance. A needs/asset survey of CMs during the development phase helped determine programmatic priorities, governance structure, and a model for sustainable, reciprocal partnerships. Since incorporating, we have grown to include 27 CMs and 11 PIs. To join the Alliance, interested organizations must apply; membership recommendations are made by our Membership Committee, after they have conducted site visits and interviews, and approved by the Board of Directors. Currently, membership is capped at 35 CMs to ensure active, engaged partnerships.


One Executive Director / CEO / President

From the start, the Alliance recognized the complexities of collaboration among so many diverse organizations. To ensure a fully inclusive process, the consultant met with the steering committee, which included representatives from 6 CMs and 2 PIs, twice a month for a year to discuss formation and to work through potential conflicts of interest. Together, they evaluated the governance structures of several different collaborative organizations, in order to choose an appropriate collaborative model. The evolving plan was presented regularly to CMs to solicit their input. The Alliance also developed strategies such as joint decision-making and collaborative dialogue to ensure evenly distributed leadership.

Daily operations are managed by a full-time staff of 3 plus interns, while the Board is responsible for overseeing long-range goals and planning. The hiring of a full-time Executive Director (ED) in Feb. 2009 enabled the Alliance to maximize its effectiveness and stabilize operations. Her work has led directly to staff expansion, the securing of additional funding, an increase in programs and services, and the raising of the Alliance’s profile within Chicago. The Board and ED have created a 3-year strategic plan to guide operations, and each of the 6 board committees (membership, program, fundraising, education, marketing, and board development) are in the midst of creating 18-month plans.


  • Defining and measuring success
  • Creating a shared culture
  • Internal and external communication

Maintaining many first-voice perspectives through a single organization is a significant challenge. All CMs and PIs are expected to designate at least 1 representative from their organization to serve on at least 1 Alliance committee. The by-laws also stipulate that 1/3 of Board members are from CM organizations, and at least 3 are from PI organizations, assuring that first-voice is maintained in daily operations and governance. Regular meetings and surveys further define and clarify CM needs. The Leadership Council, composed of CM leaders, was convened in 2009 as a way to guide the development of programs and services through consistent CM input. The Council is consulted at biannual meetings, and the full membership meets at least twice per year for Alliance updates and to select board members.

Another challenge is communication between so many stakeholders. Membership meetings attended by the full Alliance community have been an effective way to provide updates and solicit feedback; additional meetings are called throughout the year to discuss specific programs. This year, we have begun sending a weekly email about upcoming programs and deadlines to members of the Leadership Council and a similar email to all CM representatives. We have also upgraded our website in the past year to include a members-only section, where CMs and PIs can access templates, register for meetings and events, and hold discussions in the forums.

As the amount and scope of programming has increased, the Alliance has improved and streamlined its procedures for developing and delivering programs. We recently instituted an application process to ensure the fair selection of program participants. Applications include important project details and also assist in our collection of important, but difficult to obtain, information about CMs, such as community demographics, that are used to improve programs and secure funding.


  • Financial savings - Coordination / consolidation of programming
  • Financial savings - Shared development function
  • Greater ability for each partner to focus on core competency - Greater ability to allocate resources to areas of need
  • Improved marketing and communications, public relations and outreach - Improved marketing and communications, public relations and outreach
  • Increased collaboration with / among other community organizations (beyond the scope of the original collaboration)
  • Stronger / more effective "voice"

The Alliance provides many tangible benefits to CMs. We have implemented back-office services, including purchasing discounts, volunteer matching, and shared staff, which are managed by the Alliance and provided to CMs through a cost-sharing model. We provide CMs with program stipends, which place concrete value on their time and perspectives, and capacity-building opportunities. On their own, most CMs could not access the range and variety of professional development that the Alliance can provide; through our relationships with PIs, we can offer these trainings at no or low cost to CMs.

We also establish a stronger voice for CMs and their communities. Individually, CMs may have limited capacity, but together they form a citywide resource for cultural tourism and assert their first-voice perspectives in shaping cultural and civic policy. CM voices comprise a significant portion of the city’s population: their experiences diversify and enrich public conversations and help create a truly multi-cultural Chicago. Our relationships with PIs help those organizations broaden their programming and increase their access and appeal to the diversity of Chicago’s communities. This, in turn, gives CM communities better access to large institutions and a stronger voice in how they are served and portrayed.


Though we share characteristics with several existing organizations, the Alliance is creating a unique model of collaboration. We facilitate shared learning, networking opportunities, professional development, shared member services, and cross-cultural public programs. We also leverage the aggregate assets of CMs to negotiate better arrangements in partnerships. In all operations, we consistently manifest 3 key values: 1) the goal of creating social change, 2) the recognition that the sum of the Alliance’s work should be greater than its parts, and 3) the ideal of mutually beneficial partnerships.

Efficiencies Achieved

The Alliance has formalized and centralized collaborations between mainstream organizations, our Partner Institutions (PIs), and small community-based ethnic museums and cultural organizations, our Core Members (CMs). Through the Alliance, PIs can readily access Chicago’s diverse communities, and, in turn, PIs help us provide services, programs, and partnerships that strengthen CMs’ infrastructure and broaden their reach. Through our collaborations with PIs, we can obtain professional resources for much less than they would cost any single CM, and we can deliver free or low-cost services to CMs that would not be accessible outside the collaborative structure of the Alliance.

The Alliance is the only organization of its kind. Beyond serving as a network of likeminded ethnic and cultural organizations, we convene these organizations for shared services and programming, link small institutions to larger ones in ways that are mutually beneficial, and provides tangible resources to CMs. We are creating a new model of collaboration for national and international museums and community-based arts and cultural communities.

The programs and services delivered by the Alliance were developed in response to a needs and assets survey of CMs conducted during our formation in 2004-2006. These include capacity-building workshops and programs, shared marketing and fundraising, and economic efficiencies through centrally-coordinated services. We also seek to deepen the pool of resources available to ethnic museums and cultural centers by applying for funds in aggregate and working together—often with our PIs—to magnify the impact of these investments. By enhancing and expanding the capacity and efficiency of CMs, and by bringing new voices to PIs, the Alliance benefits all members of the collaboration as well as the greater Chicago community.

A crucial aspect of the Alliance’s programming is capacity-building, which helps ensure our sustainability by building the capacity of CMs to participate in collaborative programs. One of our first activities was to fund and facilitate the delivery of smARTscope for CMs. This survey, which measures organizational development, provided the Alliance with an underlying management assessment for over 75% of CMs, and the collective results inform the development of our ongoing capacity-building programs and targeted services, such as shared staffing.

We have also created centrally-coordinated services as a way to alleviate financial strain and personnel shortages at CM sites following the economic downturn in 2008. By working together, the Alliance leverages economies of scale in purchasing and volunteer recruitment and also provides staffing for organizations that need specific support but cannot afford dedicated staff. We negotiated a discount purchasing plan that is available to all CMs and developed a tool for our website to link interested volunteers with specific CMs. We also piloted a shared staffing program in 2010; eight CMs contracted for a set number of hours to work with a grants consultant who is hired and managed by the Alliance and paid for jointly by the CM and the Alliance. We hope to extend this program to additional CMs in 2011 and expand it to include a marketing consultant.

Increased access to funding is an important benefit for most CMs; because they are generally small organizations with limited reach and capacity, securing grants is often difficult. The Alliance can pursue funding opportunities that would be unlikely or impossible for individual CMs because of funders’ own restrictions, the administrative costs of awarding many similar grants to small organizations, and general competition for funding. One example is a grant received to fund our Conservation and Collections program. In 2009, the Alliance was awarded a grant from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation to pair a group of CMs with a team of professional conservators who conducted comprehensive reviews of CM collections of art and artifacts, which most CMs do not have the space, expertise, or capacity to properly store or conserve. The grant also funded a series of hands-on conservation trainings delivered by museum professionals from PIs. Because this program is centralized at the Alliance, we were able to obtain funding that this foundation clearly stated it would not have awarded to individual CMs.

Another efficiency created by the Alliance is shared marketing; our efforts in this area have positioned us as a one-stop shop for ethnic and cultural institutions in Chicago. The Alliance website lists all CMs and PIs and links to their sites; it also includes an events calendar on which CMs can post their own exhibits, programs, and events. The Alliance staff promotes these events through Twitter, Facebook, and regular communications such as a monthly newsletter and bi-weekly events email. We also promote CM sites and collaborative Alliance programs at public information fairs. This type of publicity is beneficial for CMs, because it reaches a broader audience than they can reach individually.

Joint marketing efforts also make the Alliance more visible to the city of Chicago and other non-Alliance organizations, which recognize that we are a unique resource that did not previously exist. We are frequently asked to conduct outreach on behalf of other organizations and consult with them about diversity strategies. For example, for the past two years, the Chicago Commission on Human Relations has asked us to co-sponsor a panel discussion for Immigrant and Refugee week, not only because we can bring in a more diverse audience by publicizing the event to our constituents, but also because we can solicit a diverse group of panelists that represent such diverse communities as Native Americans, Cambodian refugees, and African, Polish, and Mexican immigrants.

Increased visibility is also a benefit of partnerships with mainstream institutions. Most CMs that are little known outside of their own ethnic or geographic community can reach much broader audiences when they participate in programs with PIs. In summer 2010, for example, the Alliance delivered a series of cross-cultural dialogue programs at The Field Museum in conjunction with an exhibit of “kip fulbeck: part asian, 100% hapa,” a photographic and narrative exploration of multi-ethnic identity. The Alliance also helped develop an interactive image kiosk as an extension of the exhibit, which was viewed by almost 85,000 visitors during its run. The kiosk displayed photos taken by Alliance staff at Core Member sites, and the photo subjects’ personal statements on their ethnic identity.

Another example is our partnership with the Chicago Zoological Society—Brookfield Zoo. In 2009, the Alliance was invited by the Zoo to participate in its 75th anniversary celebration; over 15 CMs hosted booths where they demonstrated traditional crafts, brought dancers from their communities to perform throughout the day, and brought members of their communities to attend the Zoo for free with transportation provided by the Zoo. The participating CMs received exposure to the Zoo’s 14,000 visitors.


The Alliance developed from the goal of preserving and promoting our CMs’ first voice perspectives. “First voice” refers to the needs and experiences of CMs’ constituent communities, articulated in their own words, based on their own heritages, traditions, and histories. CMs are a microcosm of Chicago’s diverse population, serving over 20 ethnic groups with populations that range from 3,000 to three million members. Nearly 60% of CMs represent underserved and immigrant communities that are often excluded from arts and civic programming and funding. Since they generally do not have a platform from which to share their perceptions and stories, the Alliance works to promote and include CMs’ often-undervalued perspectives in the telling of Chicago’s history and in present-day discussions about cultural and civic policy. Their voices comprise a significant portion of the city’s population, and their experiences, which are frequently overlooked in favor of mainstream “experts,” can diversify and enrich public conversations, helping to foster a truly multi-cultural Chicago.

The emphasis on first voice is key to the success of this collaboration. It promotes trust and understanding among all the CMs and between the CMs, Partners Institutions, and staff. It also ensures that both CMs and PIs remain active, committed stakeholders, because they are continually consulted about activities and organizational direction and strategies.

Museums, government agencies, libraries, universities, and other cultural institutions often need to access the perspectives of one or several ethnic communities. While the desires and need to collaborate across cultures exists, it is infrequently executed because the cost of doing business is too high. On the flip side, partnering with large institutions can tax the staff and resources of community-based ethnic museums and cultural organizations. It can be challenging to ramp up for a demanding partnership and to sustain the increased activity level once the partnership concludes.

The Alliance addresses the barriers to forming and maintaining partnerships between CMs and large institutions and fosters collaborations that are mutually beneficial. Our partnerships with major institutions in the region help those organizations broaden their programming and increase their access and appeal to Chicago’s ethnic communities. Because of the effort, knowledge, and atmosphere of trust required to implement such work sustainably and effectively, these types of partnerships between large and small organizations would not happen without the Alliance.

The 20 original CMs embarked on the creation of the Alliance in 2004, after collaborating for eight years through The Field Museum’s Cultural Connections program. These organizations recognized that by working together they could improve their communities’ accessibility and visibility within the region. They also wanted to formalize the infrastructure developed by The Field Museum, which had acted as a convener and a provider of programs and services for their organizations. The Alliance offers capacity-building opportunities for CM organizations, which many of them could not access on their own, at low or no cost. It also facilitates cross-cultural public programs that highlight their communities’ diverse perspectives about contemporary issues such as immigration, health, or the environment. According to the president of one CM, the Bronzeville Historical Society, “I would never have the amount of resources I do without the Alliance… [which] allows us to grow our membership and connect with the community much better than we could on our own.”

In almost three years of full operations, the Alliance has grown tremendously. 17 of the original 20 CMs have sustained their membership in the Alliance, and we have added 10 new CMs. We have also grown our institutional partnerships from three to twelve. Our budget in fiscal year 2011 will be almost six times what it was in 2008, our first year of full operations. The staff has grown to include three full-time and one part-time employees. While we are proud to have grown so rapidly in a difficult economic climate, we have had to learn how to balance the distribution of money and resources for programming for CMs with the financial needs required for the Alliance’s operations. We also must continually manage the expectations brought on by a large mandate and many stakeholders while ensuring that our activities align with our mission.

An ongoing challenge for the Alliance is to maintain the first-voice perspectives of CMs in all of our operations and programs. In addition to the requirements for CM participation on the board and working committees, the Alliance formed the Leadership Council in 2009 in order to bring together the directors and presidents of all CM sites to discuss needs, program ideas, and to guide the direction of Alliance activities. As we head into 2011, we would like the Leadership Council to take a more active role in the Alliance’s future direction. During its development, the founders set forth a goal of engaging in advocacy and harnessing its collected resources to pressure public responses in support of our values. Next year, the Leadership Council will become much more actively engaged in defining policy directions and determining strategies as the Alliance broadens its focus to include advocating on behalf of Chicago’s ethnic communities.

To date, we have measured our success by soliciting input from CMs. The feedback received through surveys, regular meetings, CM participation on the board and committees, and from evaluation questionnaires completed at the conclusion of programs and workshops is used to revise existing program models appropriately and inform the development of new programs and operational directions. Because we have grown so rapidly, however, we will work with an external evaluator in 2011 to establish measures of success and to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the overall impact of the Alliance on the collaborating organizations and for the city as a whole.

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