Meet 2021’s Top Chicago Philanthropists

Since March 2020, our world has been mired by hospitalizations, deaths, lockdowns, layoffs and economic hardships. The pandemic affected everyone, but Black and Brown communities suffered disproportionately. At the same time, the demand for social justice, equity and inclusion took hold.

Our list of 2021’s Top Chicago-area philanthropists aims to highlight those who put their philanthropy to work in those arenas. Meet these superstars in our communities and learn how their work is driving social change and helping those hurt by the pandemic.


Please join us Nov. 16 at 3pm CT for a virtual celebration of the Make It Better Foundation’s 2021 Philanthropy Awards, honoring three trailblazing nonprofits that are changing lives and transforming communities. Register now.

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Dr. Willie Wilson

Dr. WIllie Wilson

Wilson, founder of the Dr. Willie Wilson Foundation, is a philanthropist, entrepreneur, and occasional political candidate. 

At the start of the pandemic, he committed to providing masks to those who needed them, giving away an estimated 25 million masks in Illinois and another 10 million in California. He also donated $500,000 to start Ramo, a non-profit organization that helps churches figure out a way to become profitable on their own to create jobs and scholarship opportunities.

“I do what I do because I believe in God and I believe in helping those in need,” Wilson said. “Giving gift cards, donating face masks to our first responders and others, donations to churches, helping seniors and the homeless … are some of the ways we have helped in the past.  

Ellen Alberding

ellen alberding

Alberding is the president and a board member of the Joyce Foundation, which funds the development and advancement of policy reforms to address racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation. She is also one of the founders of the Partnership for Safe and Peaceful Communities, investing in strategies to reduce gun violence in Chicago.

“Mass shootings are horrifying and rightly get a lot of media attention but account for just a fraction of gun homicides in the U.S.,” Alberding told the Chicago Tribune. “They are far outpaced by the daily scourge of urban gun violence, which is fueled by the easy availability of firearms and has a devastating impact on communities of color. Police shootings are another factor creating justified outrage. It’s time to bring together police, clergy, ex-offenders, elected leaders, young people, policy advocates and others for a broader conversation about solutions to reduce gun violence.”

Gillian Darlow

gillian darlow
Photo courtesy of The Polk Bros Foundation

Darlow is CEO of the Polk Bros. Foundation, which is dedicated to building and strengthening Chicago’s families and communities, especially those most affected by poverty and inequity. 

At the start of the pandemic, Chicago’s foundation community came together very quickly, within days, to make rapid grants to support relief efforts to address basic emergency needs, Darlow said. 

“Polk Bros. Foundation directed more than $1 million toward the equitable provision of food, housing, health resources, direct financial assistance, and eventually vaccines, in communities that had been disproportionately impacted both by the virus and by historic inequities,” she said. “We also helped convene our funding partners to make sure that information and communication was flowing well. 

“This is a catalyst moment, one that needs to be met with more resources,” she continued. “Our Equitable Recovery grants, supported last year and again this year through a significantly increased payout, are designed to help Chicago’s communities recover and rebuild from the pandemic in a way that ushers in long-overdue racial justice and equity.”

Helene Gayle

Courtesy of The Chicago Community Trust

Helene D. Gayle, MD, MPH, has been president and CEO of The Chicago Community Trust, one of the nation’s oldest and largest community foundations, since October 2017. Under her leadership, the Trust has adopted a new strategic focus on closing the racial and ethnic wealth gap in the Chicago region. 

J.B. and M.K. Pritzker

jb pritzker

J.B. Pritzker is the 43rd governor of Illinois, co-founder of the Pritzker Group, and a member of the Pritzker family that owns the Hyatt hotel chain.

His wife, M.K. Pritzker, is the president and director of the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation, as well as the founder of the Pritzker Children’s Initiative. She has taken a leadership role in funding women’s health in the Chicago area.

“Early childhood development is an arena that’s long been overlooked by philanthropy and government,” said J.B. Pritzker. “Even programs as large as Head Start cover a very small sliver of the population of at-risk kids. It’s an arena attractive for a private philanthropist like me because I see it as a terrific investment.”

“I’ve really come to realize over the course of this journey that it’s only luck that separates any of us at this table from someone in need,” M.K. Pritzker told Today’s Chicago Woman. “It’s really only luck.”

John Edwardson

john edwardson
Photo courtesy of Purdue University.

John Edwardson is co-chairman of Advance Illinois, an independent statewide education policy and advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that every Illinois student receives a world-class education. He is the former CEO & Chairman of CDW.

John Palfrey

john palfrey
MacArthur Foundation: President John Palfrey Photo by Andrew Collings.

Palfrey is president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, one of the nation’s largest philanthropic organizations. He has extensive experience in social change spanning the education, nonprofit, and philanthropic sectors.

“MacArthur has placed a few big bets to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges that will shape our future, from criminal justice reform to climate solutions, and from addressing nuclear challenges to reducing corruption in Nigeria,” Palfrey said. “We support efforts to strengthen American democracy by informing, engaging, and activating Americans through investments in journalism and media. And we invest in people, places, and partnerships to build a more equitable Chicago.

“In the summer of 2020, we made an extraordinary decision to issue $125 million in social bonds,” he continued. “We used the proceeds to fund an Equitable Recovery initiative that addressed the twin pandemics of Covid-19 and racial injustice. This July, we announced grants to advance racial and ethnic justice, with a focus on combatting anti-Blackness, uplifting Indigenous peoples, and improving public health equity.”

Kevin Cross

kevin cross

On June 1, Kevin Cross, who was formerly senior vice president & general manager of NBC Sports Chicago, became president and general manager for NBC 5 / WMAQ, Telemundo Chicago / WSNS and NBC Sports Chicago. 

When the pandemic hit, former Chicago Blackhawks great Eddie Olczyk called Cross and pitched the idea of a telethon. Cross was instrumental in making that happen.

NBC Sports Chicago held a special fundraising event: Be Chicago: “Together We Can.” Sean Garrett, the CEO of United Way Of Metro Chicago, and Cross joined Bob Sirott for the event. 

“Never before have we seen so many of our neighbors in financial need as we are experiencing during the unexpected coronavirus pandemic,” Sirott said. “You can make a difference in the lives of those most affected by this economic debacle by making a donation to the Chicago Community Covid-19 Response Fund.”

Kimbra and Mark Walter

Mark and Kimbra Walter

Kimbra and Mark Walter invest much of their wealth in philanthropic causes through their family foundation, focused primarily on social justice, closing the opportunity gap for low-income youth and conservation.

Mark is the co-founder of Guggenheim Partners, chairman of the Los Angeles Dodgers, an owner of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks and the Philadelphia Freedoms of World Team Tennis

Kimbra, an attorney, shares Mark’s passion for conservation and education, serving on the boards of trustees of the Lincoln Park Zoo, OneGoal and the Goodman Theatre.

“Kimbra and I are focused on social justice, on closing the ‘opportunity gap’ for low-income youth, and on saving endangered species and preserving wild places,” Mark said. “We are working hard to make our society more equitable and our planet more healthy by implementing innovative and sustainable models to tackle some of the hardest problems we face.” 

In the early part of the pandemic, the Kimbras purchased groceries and other basic goods for 5,000 families a week. 

Liz and Eric Lefkofsky

Liz and Eric Lefkofsky

Eric Lefkofsky is the founder and CEO of Tempus and a founding partner of the venture fund Lightbank. He is also the co-founder and chairman of Groupon.

Liz Lefkofsky is a leading social philanthropist committed to championing initiatives that enhance the quality of human life. As the executive director of the Lefkofsky Family Foundation, Liz advances initiatives and research in the areas of education, women’s health, medical research and the arts. 

When it comes to equity and social justice, Liz and Eric said “we want to ensure we’re allocating resources and opportunities that enhance the quality of human life in the communities we serve. We view education as a basic human right and constantly search for ways to help and make excellent education accessible for all children. To that end, LFF has been working to bring equity to education with a deep focus on neighborhood schools to ensure all children receive a high-quality education. It is our ultimate goal to inspire and raise all teens up to have an equitable opportunity to explore and pursue their passions.”

Michael and Cari Sacks

Michael and Cari Sacks

Michael Sacks is GCM Grosvenor’s Board chairman and CEO and serves on a number of nonprofit boards. 

A new $5 million gift from Michael and Cari includes scholarship support for former Chicago Public Schools students attending Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and Pritzker School of Law. In total, 89 students have received a Sacks Family Scholarship, including 41 CPS graduates. 

“Now more than ever, student support is essential to making education more accessible to Chicago’s brightest minds,” Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro said. “Through their latest philanthropy, Michael and Cari are doubling down on their commitment to Northwestern students from Chicago Public Schools, helping them to become tomorrow’s leaders in business and the law.” 

Sean Garrett

Sean Garrett

As president and chief executive officer of United Way of Metro Chicago, Garrett spearheaded the launch of the Chicago Community Covid-19 Response Fund, a partnership between Chicago Community Trust (CCT) and United Way of Metro Chicago. 

United Way and CCT, with the support of the city of Chicago, created the fund as a means for the philanthropic community, corporations and individuals across the region to support their neighbors in need. More than 6,000 donors raised more than $35 million, with 100 percent of the funds redirected back to the community.

“United Way’s efforts to partner with neighborhoods through our Neighborhood Network initiative is transformational strategy to making our neighborhoods better places to live,” Garrett said.


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Ruth Fuller has worked as a journalist in the Chicago area for over 20 years, most of that time at the Chicago Tribune. She has also worked as a communications consultant for various Chicago-area non-profit organizations, including CARE, an international relief and development organization and CURE, an epilepsy research organization.