Serving the Community, Solving Problems: Traditions of William Blair

Serving the Community, Solving Problems: Traditions of William Blair

Investing in the community has always been part of the culture of William Blair, a global financial services firm and wealth advisor. It’s a tradition that began 82 years ago when Chicagoan William McCormick Blair founded the firm.

Mr. Blair served as president of the Art Institute of Chicago, a trustee of the University of Chicago, and was a member of the Chicago Historical Society Board, to name just a few of his many civic leadership roles. His sons Ed and Bowen carried on the tradition, as have Ned Jannotta, who succeeded Ed Blair as managing partner, and other leaders of the firm.

Dave Coolidge, vice chairman of William Blair who led the firm from 1995 to 2004 and currently president of the William Blair Foundation, recalls a story about his first day on the job during an interview this fall at the new William Blair global headquarters located on the Chicago riverfront.

“The managing partner at the time called me and said, ‘I’ve got this position I think you should get involved with — it’s with this organization called Youth Guidance,’” Coolidge says with a chuckle.

His boss’ wife was president of the group at the time and Coolidge said he’d be really interested.

Coolidge gladly got directly involved and later served as the group’s president.

“It’s just something we do,” says Coolidge. “These traditions have been passed down. We live in a community and want to make sure the community thrives. You do it by solving problems and getting involved where you can.”

Youth Guidance, serving inner-city youth for decades, has created a variety of programs over the years that have been quite effective, he says. It was the first private organization allowed inside Chicago Public Schools to work with youth.

The group partnered with McDonald’s to start a restaurant training program for students, created the Becoming a Man (BAM) program to mentor male youths, and many more.

Employees Engaged

As William Blair has grown beyond its Chicago headquarters to offices in Boston, Atlanta, San Francisco, New York, and overseas, its community engagement activity has also grown.

A spirit of philanthropy is encouraged and employee-led through the firm’s charity programs and volunteer initiatives. William Blair colleagues currently mentor students, support food banks, collect coats for the needy, support environmental programs and educational groups, sponsor art competitions, and the list goes on.

“It’s really this tremendous legacy and we are getting more people engaged so it’s not just the firm’s leaders. We are inspiring the next generation of philanthropists at William Blair,” says Laura Coy, director of community engagement for William Blair.

Coy is particularly proud of William Blair’s Community Partners program, which invests in innovative and education programs as well as the firm’s matching gift program for employee charitable contributions and the participation of employees on nonprofit boards.

Making a Difference

“The Community Partners program was conceived by our CEO John Ettelson several years ago to select a couple featured organizations and fund them for a two-year period with a much larger gift than our traditional gifts to many organizations,” says Coy.

Ettelson, who has held many civic leadership roles and most recently chaired the Lincoln Park Zoo Board, “wanted to do something that moved the needle,” she adds.

Bernie’s Book Bank, Chicago’s largest provider of books to at-risk children, and Urban Initiatives, a sports-based youth leadership program, are William Blair’s 2016-2017 partners. The firm awarded each $200,000 to be used over two years to start or scale up their programs.

Urban Initiatives was able to expand beyond its elementary school program and launched Take the Lead, a leadership program for middle school students.

William Blair: Dave Coolidge
Dave Coolidge speaking at Urban Initiatives’ Take the Lead retreat at William Blair in 2016.

Bernie’s Book Bank, based in Lake Bluff, Illinois, created a book distribution network in Chicago. Aided by William Blair volunteers, Bernie’s has distributed nearly 2 million additional books to low-income children during the past two years.

“What’s been gratifying is the increase in employee involvement,” Coolidge says.

Last year, 200 William Blair volunteers worked alongside the firm’s community partners.

William Blair also donated $270,000 to about 300 nonprofits across the globe through its employee match program. Almost 200 employees serve on nonprofit boards, advisory councils, and committees using their talents and expertise to help local charities advance their missions.

Coolidge also continues to serve educational institutions. He is a trustee of both Rush University Medical Center and the University of Chicago and a trustee emeritus of Williams College.

Best of all, Coolidge says, is that he keeps learning from tomorrow’s leaders even as he shares his life experience with them.

“They don’t want to know what you do,” Coolidge says. “They want to know what you stand for.”