Philanthropy in Chicago: Powerful History in the Making

Philanthropy can be generally defined as love for humankind. Yosef Meystel knows that philanthropy  is a critical part of a democratic society since it focuses on the elimination social problems, instead of eliminating the suffering caused by social problems- like charity does. It supports projects and activities from which we can all benefit – such as libraries, museums and scientific research. Philanthropy also cares about efforts that may be too unpopular or controversial to gain the widespread support of the general public or the government.

Project Inspire_Philanthropy in Chicago_Yosef Meystel

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If we take a look at Chicago’s past, we would see that in this city the organized donation of money to charitable causes, has historically left an enormous and lasting legacy. Through the support of numerous educational and cultural institutions of national and international renown, a network of charities that have improved the health and social welfare of metropolitan area residents has been developed over the years

Over the 150 years, philanthropy in Chicago has positively evolved, benefiting most Chicagoans. From 1850 to 1915, large donations were made by wealthy individuals who wanted to support major institutions dominated the philanthropic landscape. Later on, some charitable institutions were founded, changing the way donations were both made and received, and philanthropy changed its course. After World War I, wealthy Chicagoans began donating in perpetuity to private philanthropic foundations as a way to create a stable, permanent flow of charitable resources that would continue the donor’s philanthropic endeavor years after their death.

Community funds and federated giving programs also challenged the early tradition of direct philanthropy by wealthy donors, by allowing donors of more modest means to find different vehicles for their philanthropic efforts. Additionally, during the 1950’s and 60’s, many Chicago-based corporations, among them several of America’s largest business enterprises, launched corporate philanthropic programs.

It is important to remark that Chicago’s early philanthropic leaders were industrialists, merchants, and financiers who helped build the city – especially after the Civil War. Citizens were proud and inspired by the growing of a new city and proud donors made their donations inspired by the idea of transforming Chicago into the “Athens of the West”. In order to use their charitable gifts to project their own personal ideals to the extensive community, the city’s donors also wanted to introduce arts and culture in the working classes, offering them educational activities, both morally and culturally inspiring.

children_Philanthropy in Chicago_Yosef Meystel

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Thanks to the early philanthropic approach, major cultural and educational institutions were built. Significant donations launched the Chicago Atheneum, the Field Museum of Natural History, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Also, some educational institutions were built, including Northwestern University, in 1851 and the Armour Institute of Technology (now Illinois Institute of Technology), in 1893.

Since the city’s foundation in 1833 to the 1920s approximately $80 million had been donated to charity, with culture and education together gathering over $50 million. Health charities and hospitals raised around $10 million during the same period; childcare attracted $2 million, relief organizations drew $1.3 million, and settlements attracted around $700,000. A hundred years after the city’s foundation, several important individuals had made important gifts, such as the $8 million bequest from Marshall Field to endow the Field Museum and early gifts from Charles Hutchinson to the Art Institute. Between 1925 and the Great Depression Chicago philanthropy grew noticeably, as donations citywide totaled over $45 million.

Some of Chicago’s largest long-lasting foundations were created in the 1950s. Wealthy donors such as Robert R. McCormick – the editor of the Chicago Tribune for more than 40 years-, created a trust in 1955 that began functioning nearly 35 years later as the billion-dollar Robert R. McCormick–Tribune Foundation. However, the largest foundation in Chicago is the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which controlled over $4 billion in assets by the end of the twentieth century.

Major Chicago-based firms such as Sears, Roebuck (1941), Allstate (1952), and Amoco (1952), later in history emerged as an important part of the city’s charitable support system, establishing relevant corporate contributions programs. Many of the largest corporations have long considered their philanthropic initiatives as important aspects of marketing and public relations, instead of claiming to be entirely altruistic, unlike most other forms of institutional philanthropy.

During the 21st century, institutional giving in Chicago has grown to over $500 million. Nowadays, there are more than a thousand foundations active in the city and suburbs, supporting causes that sometimes may be unpopular or controversial. Through experimentation, change, and growth, major individual contributions in support of cultural and educational causes have branched out to a variety of forms of institutional giving, supporting hundreds of nonprofit organizations working in almost every field imaginable. Philanthropists in Chicago have never answered to the government or to the public, the have chosen the people and projects to receive their support in order to contribute to the constant improvement of the city through the course of history.


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