This mortgage industry executive gives money directly to people in need. All they need to do is ask.
Earlier this year, Caitlyn, a certified nursing assistant who lives in the western suburbs, found herself and her three children without a home, car or much of anything else when she left her physically and emotionally abusive husband. For help, she turned to Wings, a Rolling Meadows-based nonprofit that assists battered women and their families. For money, she turned to Guaranteed Rate Foundation, the philanthropic arm of mortgage firm Guaranteed Rate.
Within three weeks of filling out the foundation's grant application, Caitlyn received $24,900, which covered a security deposit and a year's rent on an apartment, a car, and clothes for her and her young children. "I can sleep at night and not worry about where my kids and I will stay," says Caitlyn, who asks that her last name not be used. "My kids are happier than I've ever seen them."
Since its founding in 2012, Guaranteed Rate Foundation has granted $2.4 million to 1,027 individuals, not to nonprofits, as do other corporate foundations. It's helped people whose houses have burned down and who have become disabled and lack insurance to cover extras, such as ramps or motorized wheelchairs. The grants "give people a chance to just breathe," says Victor Ciardelli, founder and CEO of Chicago-based Guaranteed Rate, which he has built into one of the country's biggest mortgage firms since he started the company in 2000.
In 2017, giving in the U.S. totaled $410 billion, according to Giving USA Foundation's annual survey. Giving directly to individuals accounted for $7.8 billion, just 2 percent of the total. Yet it's an area that's gaining interest, due in part to social media asks via crowdfunding platforms such as GoFundMe, which has raised $5 billion globally since it was launched in 2010. "There is a much stronger appetite for donors to know exactly where their money is going," says Michael Bruni, partner at Hub Philanthropic Solutions, a Chicago-based consulting firm. "All donors really want to see their investment at work. They want to touch it, feel it, see it truly have an impact."
Ciardelli checks those boxes. He is adamant that the foundation, funded by employee contributions, fundraisers and corporate sponsors, grant every penny to people who need it. "I don't want to give money if it's going to salaries," he says, noting that Guaranteed Rate covers all foundation expenses. He is equally adamant that he feel connected to his philanthropy. From 2005 to 2008, Ciardelli served on the Children's Memorial Hospital Foundation Corporate Champions Board; the hospital is now Lurie Children's Hospital. While he calls the hospital "an amazing cause," fundraising was so solid that he felt superfluous. "I was so distant from feeling I was making a difference," he says.
Six years in, he's making some changes to the foundation. He wants to help women who have experienced domestic violence, and has contacted area nonprofits, like Wings, to find women in need. So far the foundation has given $170,592 to eight families under this initiative. Second, grants are getting bigger. This year's grants average $19,064; historically, they've averaged $8,724. "I'm focused on helping people in a more significant way," says Ciardelli, 51, a divorced father of four who lives in Hinsdale. The son of a lawyer and a homemaker, he grew up Catholic but no longer attends church. "I pray a lot," he says. "The more I pray, the more I give back, the more good things happen. It feels good."
While Ciardelli's brand of philanthropy works for him, it's not a perfect model. Money buys shelter, clothing, food and a car, but not the psychological support that people in crisis often need. For example, Wings, which has a budget of $6 million a year and operates several safe houses in the Chicago area, has a professionally trained staff that helps women recover from domestic violence. "We are keeping an eye on things—we have their back," says CEO Rebecca Darr.
Another is making sure that grantees really need the money. Would-be Guaranteed Rate Foundation grant recipients fill out an application, which is reviewed by a 10-person committee composed of employees who volunteer their time. Applicants who make it through the first round submit financial information, including bank and credit card statements and tax returns. Another committee approves the final applications, and Ciardelli retains veto power. Grantees submit bills to Guaranteed Rate Foundation, which pays them directly. One-third of applications are approved, compared with about 50 percent for foundations overall, according to 2004 Foundation Center research, the most recent available.
Ciardelli wants the foundation to eventually grant $5 million or $10 million a year. Most foundations have staffs and infrastructure to help them scale. Guaranteed Rate Foundation has volunteers, and applications can run 90 to 100 pages. The foundation is making the application process more efficient, and it might hire additional staff, says Jay Oleniczak, the foundation's senior director.
Ciardelli got the idea for the foundation in 2011, when a Guaranteed Rate employee's house burned down. The company gave the family $25,000 for food and clothing, "to get them back on their feet," Ciardelli recalls. In 2012, he formally established Guaranteed Rate Foundation to be a "safety net" for employees, their families and friends, and community members in need.
The catch? Their hard luck has to be due to circumstances beyond their control. Those who've brought misfortune on themselves will get Ciardelli's sympathy, but not his foundation's money. Over the years, he's vetoed a handful of applications where "I felt like the person got themselves into the mess," he says.
Guaranteed Rate Foundation is looking for more people who, through no fault of their own, could use a little cash. About half the leads come from Guaranteed Rate employees, and the rest from those who have experienced philanthropy, Ciardelli-style. A grant isn't a guaranteed proposition, but for people like Caitlyn, it's worth a try.