Chicagoans are already pretty familiar with Eric Lefkofsky, co-founder of Groupon and owner of the venture capital firm, Lightbank. But how much do you really know his wife, Liz, the full-time philanthropist with a respected career in the Chicago nonprofit sector?
The Lefkofsky couple made headlines a few months ago by signing the Giving Pledge and committing half of their wealth to charity. In 2012, the Lefkofsky Family Foundation gave away $4.6 million, with much of this giving going to the Chicago area and spread across dozens of nonprofit organizations working mainly on education, health, and the arts.
Funders who spread their money widely like this are always good to know, because they may be open to new grantees, including small outfits. That said, we should be clear that the Lefkofsky Family Foundation doesn't accept unsolicited proposals. Nor does the foundation seem to have much of an organizational infrastructure. It has just one paid staffer working to move all those grants out the door, Rachel Graham, who prior to coming to the foundation was a school psychologist working with elementary students in the Chicago suburbs and is also involved in youth leadership issues in Chicago. (You can reach Graham at firstname.lastname@example.org). Impressively, the foundation spent just $188,193 on administrative expenses in 2012.
All this underscores the importance of getting to know Liz Lefkofsky, who directs the foundation's work in collaboration with a small board.
(If you're looking for an in with the foundation beyond Liz, check out its board members to see if you know any of them. Beyond Liz and Eric, the board includes Steven Lefkofsky, Andy Sommers, Dawn Denberg, and Natalie Tessler.)
Lefkofksy's philanthropic roots go much deeper than her husband's success in the Internet consumer services industry. In an interview with Chicago Magazine, Liz said her dedication to Chicago's civic and humanitarian causes dated back stuffing envelopes as a child for her mother's nonprofit organization, the American Brain Tumor Association (ABTA). (Liz's mom, Susan Kramer, started ABTA after Liz's older sister, Stephanie Kramer, was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor in the early seventies.)
In the mid-1990s, Liz served as the director of the Printers Row Book Fair and later as the director of special projects at a Chicago community art center known as Gallery 37. Over the years, she's also provided charitable board service for the Near South Planning Board, Teach for America Chicago, Woman's Leadership Charter School, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Ravinia Festival, and Human Rights Watch.
Liz and Eric Lefkofsky have been married nearly two decades and have three preteen and teenage kids. Liz has been held in high esteem for her art collection and her personal fashion. “As a little girl, I was sort of a tomboy,” she said in an interview. “As I got older, I had my own sense of style.”
The Lefkofsky Family Foundation mainly funds in the Chicago area, but also supports some well known national and international organizations, like Human Rights Watch. Within Chicago, some of its biggest gifts have gone to the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital, but it's also been a supporter of education, art museums, and theater. Most grants are well below $100,000.
A quick note about the foundation's education work: While it supports charter schools and Liz Lefkofsky has been actively involved in charters, the foundation also supports other approaches to improving education, such as strengthening classroom instruction and the quality of teachers.
The foundation doesn't say anything about supporting environmental work, but one of its biggest gifts in 2012—of $250,000—went to the Waterkeeper's Alliance, a group that protects rivers, streams, and coastlines worldwide, including the Great Lakes.
The foundation's giving runs a pretty wide gamut, reflecting the diverse interests of Liz, Eric, and other board members. Is spreading money around so thinly an effective approach to giving? We'll leave that question for another post, but it's definitely good news for the many Chicago nonprofits that have gotten their foot in the door at the Lefkofsky Family Foundation.
And it's definitely a reflection of Liz's desire to be as helpful as she can be. “It’s not about buying nice things for yourself,” she has said about what drives her, “it’s about doing something for somebody else." Of nonprofit work, she said, "It’s always been what I’ve done. It’s where I’m from.”