Updated: May 1, 2014 6:19AM
Call it “paying it forward”: Chicago has a long, proud tradition of encouraging its citizens not only to support charitable causes but to foster a culture that makes it both commonplace and an expected activity for those who have resources to share.
Certainly dating back to the city’s rebirth from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1871, Chicago civic leaders have stepped up to build our great museums, symphony and other cultural institutions — plus hospitals and organizations that aid the less fortunate. Many of their descendants continue that good work today.
This story is not about them.
This is about the new generation of younger philanthropists who come from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences and who concentrate their efforts on helping smaller, newer nonprofits grow and flourish. Some, like Josephine Lee of the Chicago Children’s Choir, are looking for innovative ways to see their nonprofit organizations grow. Others, like Eve Rogers, found inspiration through personal stories.
In all cases, their dedication is not about writing checks but more about getting deeply, personally involved in the organizations they care so much about.
Clearly, there are many individuals who could be mentioned here. These six women represent the ideas and ideals of Chicago’s new philanthropists.
Principal interests: Barrington Children’s Charities, Service Club of Chicago, Blessings in a Backpack
Attorney Hills, who formerly worked in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, where she focused on child welfare, co-founded Barrington Children’s Charities in 2010 after the Barrington Hills resident recognized that there are kids in need, even in affluent communities. “When we [with husband Tom Hills] started the charity, we knew there were needs, but had no idea how extensive the needs were in our area. … Meeting with the superintendent of our school district [Barrington District 220], we learned that 18 percent of the schoolchildren were on the free or reduced cost lunch program — which means they are below the poverty level and are struggling,” said Hills.
Along with two local volunteers, Hills also helped develop the“Blessings in a Backpack” program at Sunny Hill Elementary School in Carpentersville; it provides nourishing food for more than 450 children each weekend, when they don’t have access to school lunch programs.
“Philanthropy is simply a big part of our family’s life,” she said. “We primarily focus on causes that involve children, and we do it as a family. It’s an example we want to set for our children.”
Principal interests: Lurie Children’s Hospital, Museum of Contemporary Art
As the director of the Chicago operation for Graff Diamonds, Rogers of Chicago spends her days overseeing the sales of million-dollar gems. But a big chunk of her time also is focused on a cause with a deeply personal connection. Several years ago, Rogers’ daughter was diagnosed with Kawasaki disease by doctors at Lurie’s Children’s Hospital — in time to save her life. “We were so amazed by the incredible treatment our daughter received,” said Rogers.
April 30 will be the fourth annual dinner to raise funds for Kawasaki disease research at Lurie. “Last year we had almost 200 people and raised $100,000,” she said. “That is a rewarding feeling, knowing you can help make a difference.”
For Rogers, an added plus to helping a charitable organization is “how much you can learn — in this case about hospitals and health care. ... It’s not just about giving money — it’s getting an understanding of ‘What are they doing with the money?’ It’s good to learn first-hand things like that.”
Principal interest: The Marwen Foundation
Sharma arrived in this country from India at age 15, and she spent many years “busy making a life, growing up in a family of first-generation Indian Americans who deeply valued education and success.”
After working for about 15 years as an analyst and consultant, Sharma decided “I wanted to use the other side of my brain — the artistic, creative side.” That led her to launching her own women’s clothing line three years ago (“even though I have no formal training as a designer”) and joining the board of the Marwen Foundation — which provides visual arts training, plus college planning and career development to underserved children from the inner city.
The Chicago resident, who recently chaired Marwen’s annual gala, said she is inspired by the people around her. “I am constantly amazed that almost everyone I know is involved with something that involves giving back,” she said. “It’s not done in a way that is ostentatious. It’s often done by people giving of their time and resources very quietly. I feel it is nice that it’s part of the culture here.”
Principal interests: National Museum of Mexican Art, Latino Cultural Center, Service Club of Chicago
Southwest Side native Priego is a first-generation Mexican-American who, after returning to Chicago a few years ago, realized “the arts organizations that focused on Latino culture and life were incredibly underfunded and not well enough known.” The dynamic marketing executive, who now runs her own firm following a stint as a vice president for the Chicago White Sox, believes “the new face of philanthropy is all about smarter giving. It’s not simply about writing checks. You have to be directly and deeply involved. You have to use all of your resources and contacts to help the causes you believe in.”
Priego is co-chairing the May 2 gala for the National Museum of Mexican Art, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel will be the event’s special honoree. “The arts are one of those things I feel get overlooked a lot in terms of funding,” she said. “It’s important we support them.”
Principal interest: Chicago Children’s Choir
For Lee, her favorite charity just happens to be where she works. Since 1998, the Lincoln Park native has worked for the Chicago Children’s Choir, where she became the group’s artistic director at the young age of 23.
Music has clearly been the driving force for Lee, who is deeply proud of her Korean heritage. “My past helps inform my present and my future,” said Lee, who began playing the violin at age 3, soon followed by piano and voice instruction. By the age of 15 she already was conducting.
Since taking over leadership of the Chicago Children’s Choir, Lee has expanded its programming from 45 to 65 schools and runs programs in 10 Chicago neighborhoods. “Today we are 3,800 students strong and our 5-year strategic plan, launched a few years ago, hopes we will be serving 5,000 children by 2016,” she said.
As for that all-important fundraising, Lee is philosophical. “You do have to work hard and convince people of your passion — so they become passionate and involved in supporting you.”
Julie Hughes O’Connor
Principal interests: Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, Urban Initiatives
A frequent presence on the city’s social and charity scene, O’Connor of Wilmette married into a family long deeply involved in Chicago’s not-for-profit fundraising world — her in-laws, retired Commonwealth Edison chairman James O’Connor and his wife, Ellen, have been high-profile board members and event chairs for benefit events for decades. Yet the younger O’Connor is quick to note the spark that ignited her own desire to make a difference started while she was studying for a MBA at Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Business.
“I ended up majoring in non-profit management and was really inspired by [professor] Don Haider,” said O’Connor. From there she went on to positions in both the corporate and non-profit worlds in Chicago and Washington, D.C.
From O’Connor’s perspective, Chicago is a good town for both learning from her elders “who have spent decades raising enormous amounts of money for Chicago’s top institutions like the museums, the Lyric, the hospitals and the symphony,” she said. She carries on that tradition — especially at the Shedd, which she quotes her husband, James O’Connor, Jr., as calling “the happiest place on Earth.”
O’Connor is also focused on helping much smaller entities like Urban Initiatives, a group that brings soccer opportunities to kids in the inner city.
“I have friends in other cities who are constantly impressed by what we do in Chicago, telling me their towns can’t even come close to matching what we do here,” she said.