Women of Philanthropy: Rita Canning

Rita Canning
Chairman of the Board of Directors, Women In Need Growing Stronger (WINGS)

“I never started off saying ‘I’m going to be a philanthropist,’ ” says Rita Canning, who is not only a philanthropist, but a very hands-on one. “Instead, I thought about what I wanted to do once my kids were grown. I decided I’d like to volunteer at a women’s shelter.”

Searching for that volunteer job, Rita found that the Chicago suburbs had few options for women fleeing domestic violence. There was a shelter in Waukegan and one in Elgin, but both were turning away 200 women a month.

Rita decided to open a shelter near her home in Inverness, which led to her involvement with the fledgling organization WINGS. She convinced them to expand their mission from just homeless women and children to include services and housing for women affected by domestic violence. Eight years later, Rita opened that shelter. Now WINGS has 23 transitional homes, plus the Safe House, an emergency domestic violence shelter.

“We provide more than 40,000 nights of safe shelter to women and their children each year,” Rita says. But she’s not done. WINGS has had a challenging year, facing cutbacks in donor funds—just like many other charitable organizations—and suffering the loss of one of their retail stores to a fire. So, she’s working to raise money while cutting programs as little as possible.

“We just need to get to a point where we’re breaking even,” she says. “We don’t steal, but we do beg and borrow.” She tells a story about one of her favorite benefits for WINGS—Sweet Home Chicago—which is held every December at the Four Seasons. The florist saves and raids from all the other holiday parties he works that week and provides the decoration at no cost to WINGS. She laughs at what they’re willing to do to make sure every penny goes toward providing support to the women who need it most.

It’s a lot of work, but Rita seems to relish her role as someone who not only houses homeless and abused women, but also provides education, guidance and support—a true philanthropist.

“My husband always says that volunteering is a selfish act and he is exactly right,” she says. “I receive so much more than I give.”