Alphawood Foundation: Chicago Grants

OVERVIEW: The Alphawood Foundation is one of the few in the city that provides funding for gay rights groups. The foundation awards some 200 grants each year, ranging from about $7,500 to $3 million, to arts groups as well.

FUNDING AREAS: Dance, music, theater, literature, visual arts, art education, LGBT rights, advocacy, archaeology, architecture and preservation, domestic violence, HIV/AIDS

IP TAKE: The Alphawood Foundation, like its founder Fred Eychaner, is very private and likes to award grants anonymously. Fortunately, Eychaner has hired a program officer and an executive director who make themselves a bit more accessible to grantseekers.

PROFILE: The founder and funder of the Alphawood Foundation, Fred Eychaner, originally tried to name his philanthropic organization “Anonymous.” That's because he's a reclusive millionaire who keeps a low profile on both the personal and the professional front. However, Alphawood has recently revamped its website to spell out its funding priorities, giving grantseekers an opportunity to learn about the organization and see who its funds. Also, the website's Newsroom is updated regularly and will give you an idea of where support has been going lately.

And there's plenty of money still flowing out of Alphawood's bank account. At the end of a recent year, the funder reported over $168 million in total assets. Grants have generally been anywhere from $5,000 to $1 million in recent years.

Eychaner started the Alphawood Foundation in 1991 to support arts foundations in the Chicago area and northwest Indiana. The foundation focuses most of its grantmaking on art, theater, dance, music, literature, and arts education. However, this solo philanthropist has a passion for politics and gay rights. As an openly gay man and a lifelong Democrat, Eychaner picked up some serious media attention by becoming the fourth-largest backer of the 2012 presidential election.

The oldest of four children in a rural, Republican, Methodist family, Eychaner emerged onto the philanthropy scene by making a fortune through his company, Newsweb Corporation. Since 1971, Newsweb specialized in community, ethnic, and college newspaper printing. It certainly pushed matters along when he sold his Chicago-based television network to Fox Television for $425 million in 2003.

Some of Alphawood's past grants include $1.5 million to the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, $300,000 to the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, $100,000 to the Dance Center of Columbia College. The foundation awards around 200 grants each year, ranging from about $7,500 to $3 million. Although most Alphawood grants aren't overwhelmingly large in size, they do reach organizations that many other foundations in the city intentionally leave off their radar.

Alphawood made headlines when he awarded a $32 million grant to the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies. The purpose of the monumental grant was to increase understanding of Southeast Asian art and facilitate the preservation of Hindu and Buddhist art. This is the largest grant in Alphawood's history. Founder Fred Eychander pursued a postgraduate diploma in Asian art at this school in 2009. 

Grantseekers should become familiar with Jim McDonough, the foundation's executive director. Before joining forces with Alphawood, this lawyer worked his way through Chicago politics at Sun Times Media Holdings LLC, Sun Times Media Group Inc., and Gardner Carton & Douglas.

Don't bother trying to contact Eychaner personally about getting a grant. Eychaner rarely even allows reporters to take his photograph, let alone conduct an interview. Unlike many philanthropists in the city, he is burdened by the solicitation that accompanies his wealth. So it should come as no surprise that unsolicited grant proposals aren't welcome at the Alphawood Foundation.

Grants are made by invitation only, and the only option for organizations who would like to get Alphawood's attention is to visit the foundation website and fill out the inquiries form. Neither directly calling the office nor sending an email will get you an invitation. But if you do follow the proper channels and receive an invitation to submit a grant proposal to Alphawood, the staff will fill you in about deadlines and requirements. You can also find a list of past grantees on the foundation website, which are separated into eight distinct funding categories.


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