Maybe it's funding a building expansion to house a CT scan machine at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, or purchasing a human patient simulator for the nursing program at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines.
Or perhaps it's providing more than 500 students at the College of Lake County in Grayslake with scholarships that could be the difference between staying in school or staying home.
Founation revenuesCLC: $533,000 in '09-'10; $383,000 in '08-'09; $787,000 in '07-'08; n/a in '06-'07
COD: $1.3 million in '09-'10; $1.5 million in '08-'09; $1.4 million in '07-'08; n/a in '06-'07
ECC: $993,000 in '09-'10; $448,000 in '08-'09; $436,000 in '07-'08; n/a in '06-'07
Harper: $572,000 in '09-'10; $1.5 million in '08-'09; $909,000 in '07-'08; n/a in '06-'07
MCC: $350,000 in '09-'10; $3 million in '08-'09; $1.3 million in '07-'08; $2.5 million in '06-'07
*Oakton: $1.7 million in '09-'10; -$873,000 in '08-'09; $613,000 in '07-'08; n/a in '06-'07
Waubonsee: $220,000 in '09-'10; $266,000 in '08-'09; $269,000 in '07-'08 $281,000 in '06-'07
* Loss in 2008-09 due to investments; foundation received $775,000 in contributions
CLC: $745,000 in '09-'10; $602,000 in '08-'09; $620,000 in '07-'08; n/a in '06-'07
COD: $1.3 million in '09-'10; $592,000 in '08-'09; $616,000 in '07-'08; n/a in '06-'07
ECC: $188,000 in '09-'10; $231,000 in '08-'09; $310,000 in '07-'08; n/a in '06-'07
Harper: $562,000 in '09-'10; $690,000 in '08-'09; $655,000 in '07-'08; n/a in '06-'07
MCC: $1.6 million in '09-'10; $496,000 in '08-'09; $504,000 in '07-'08; $460,000 in '06-'07
Oakton: $735,000 in '09-'10; $876,000 in '08-'09; $695,000 in '07-'08; n/a in '06-'07
Waubonsee: $145,000 in '09-'10; $212,000 in '08-'09; $185,000 in '07-'08; $196,000 in '06-'07
Foundation fund balances in millions
CLC: $2.3 in '09-'10; $2.5 in '08-'09; $2.7 in '07-'08; $2.6 in '06-'07
COD: $9.4 in '09-'10; $8.6 in '08-'09; $9.5 in '07-'08; $9.1 in '06-'07
ECC: $3.3 in '09-'10; $2.4 in '08-'09; $2.2 in '07-'08; $2.2 in '06-'07
Harper: $5.6 in '09-'10; $5.3 in '08-'09; $5.2 in '07-'08; $5.1 in '06-'07
MCC: $3.6 in '09-'10; $8.8 in '08-'09; $5.3 in '07-'08; $6.3 in '06-'07
Oakton: $9.7 in '09-'10; $8.6 in '08-'09; $10.3 in '07-'08; $10.4. in '06-'07;
Waubonsee: $2.4 in '09-'10; $2.3 in '08-'09; $2.5 in '07-'08; $2.4 in '06-'07
Source: IRS Form 990, n/a means not available
Whatever form the financial assistance may take, community college educational foundations are playing increasingly important roles in supporting academic efforts that fall outside the purview of a school's operating budget.
"It's amazing how relatively small amounts of money can make a difference in the ability to attend college," said COD Foundation Executive Director Sharon Mellor.
Of seven suburban community colleges in the north and west suburbs, Oakton's and COD's foundations are by far the best funded, respectively boasting $9.7 million and $9.4 million in net assets at the close of the fiscal 2010 year, according to the most recent available filings with the Internal Revenue Service.
Last year, Oakton's foundation awarded 444 scholarships totaling more than $513,000. The number is even higher this year.
"Given what's been going on with the state, Oakton has had to curtail its budgets the past several years," foundation Executive Director Carlee Drummer said. "Every penny we raise goes directly to helping students either through scholarships or by enhancing their learning environments."
Hoping to join that next tier of fundraising is Harper College in Palatine.
Founded in 1973, its educational foundation had less than $1 million in annual revenue for the first 20 years, according to Chief Advancement Officer Catherine Brod. Then came several major gift campaigns, including one that helped equip the Wojcik Conference Center and Performing Arts Center and another that raised more than $8 million.
Now, foundation officials are setting out to raise $3 million annually, a sizable jump from the $1.1 million raised in fiscal year 2011 and the $572,000 the prior year. And the foundation aims to attain $10 million in assets by 2015, not including growth in the value of the art collection.
The foundation has "set the bar very high compared to the other community colleges in the area," Harper Trustee Walt Mundt said.
These not-for-profit organizations have become serious businesses. For some, that means paying its leaders top dollar.
In 2009-10, Harper Foundation Executive Director Catherine Brod and Associate Executive Director Katherine Sawyer received a combined $308,000 in total compensation. The former Elgin Community College Foundation executive director received about $125,000 in total compensation for averaging 30 hours of work each week, IRS filings showed. And former COD Chief Development Officer Michael Trench, who helped oversee the college's foundation, was compensated $123,000.
In some cases, a portion of the pay was attributed to job responsibilities associated with the college and not the foundation.
Like Harper, most local community college foundations have been around for decades, though some aren't that well-known.
Sharon Konny, the vice president of finance and business at ECC, said the organization is hoping to better inform the community about the good that contributions can do. The foundation's assets have grown from $1.5 million to $3.3 million over the last 10 years.
The foundation has been in somewhat of a holding pattern while in between executive directors, but officials hope the 200,000 square feet of facilities being constructed on campus will attract potential donors willing to pay for the naming rights to a classroom, lab or entire building.
"We hope that with a new executive director we can make the community more aware of what we do and how we can change people's lives," Konny said. "We seem to be a well-kept secret for the moment."
Despite the widespread long-term growth of local community college foundations, for some the past few years have been difficult in the wake of the economic downtown.
With the exception of ECC, no organization grew its assets by more than $1 million between 2006 and 2010. And the College of Lake County, McHenry County College, Waubonsee Community College and Oakton all saw their fund balances remain flat or even decline.
Officials at Waubonsee, which ended 2010 with $2.4 million in assets -- the same as in 2006 -- said its foundation would be struggling more if not for a couple of sizable donations.
"All of us have been hurting lately," Assistant Vice President of Finance Darla Cardine said.