Comer Family Foundation: Chicago Grants

OVERVIEW: The Comer Family Foundation is the result of a merger of two of Lands' End founder Gary Comer’s philanthropic endeavors, and it is a prominent grantmaker in the city of Chicago. Unfortunately for grantseekers, the foundation does not accept unsolicited grant proposals at this time for any funding area except the syringe exchange program, which has a national focus to control the transmission of HIV.

FUNDING AREAS: Education, healthcare, environment, culture

IP TAKE: This is a wonderful family foundation for nonprofits serving Chicago’s South Side to keep on their radars. Almost all education, healthcare, and culture grants are awarded in this region, which is known for gang violence, poverty, and a lack of overall resource compared to the rest of the city.

PROFILE: As a lifelong resident of South Side Chicago, Gary Comer became a world-class competitive sailor, a successful copywriter, and eventually the founder of Lands’ End. From 1963 to 1991, he served as Lands’ End’s President and CEO before selling the company to Sears and turning his attention to philanthropy in 2002.

The Comer Foundation was established in 1986 with primary grantmaking programs focusing on syringe exchange nationwide and cultural organizations in Chicago. Comer established a separate foundation in 1998 to fund organizations in the fields of education, environment, and health, but these two grantmaking entities merged in 2013 to create the Comer Family Foundation. Even after Comer succumbed to prostate cancer in 2006, his family has remained involved with grantees through the family philanthropy.

Comer’s love for the city of Chicago has always remained a driving force in the family philanthropy. His support enabled the opening of the Gary Comer Youth Center that houses Gary Comer College Prep, a charter school on the South Side of Chicago. He also contributed more than $84 million to establish and expand the Comer Children’s Hospital at the University of Chicago as well. After driving through the old South Side neighborhood that he grew up in 1999, Comer wrote over $86 million in checks to revitalize the impoverished, gang-run area he used to call home.

The Comer Family Foundation’s current program areas are education, healthcare, environment, and culture. Comer’s education work focuses exclusively on the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. But this support is broad and encompasses academic support and college readiness, after-school enrichment, teen employment, housing, and healthcare within the sphere of education.

In addition to supporting syringe exchange programs focused on harm reduction, which help control the spread of HIV nationwide, Comer also funds hospitals and healthcare centers on Chicago’s South Side. Since 2008, the foundation has partnered with Health Management Associates to optimize a better plan to care for pregnant women and children on the South Side.

Comer’s culture grantmaking program is Chicago-wide and has focused on photography and its technological evolution. The foundation helped fund the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago and endows the Gary C. & Frances Comer Curator of Modern Art at that institution. You can head over to Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History to see the Gary C. Comer Family Gallery, which is devoted to environmental issues and sustainability.

Also in the environmental support space, Comer established a Gary Comer Abrupt Climate Change Fellowship, which funds post-docs, graduate students and technicians studying the causes and consequences of climate change. Other environmental funds have gone toward the Gary C. Comer Geochemistry Building at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and to Kilimanjaro Energy, a company developing technologies to capture atmospheric carbon dioxide for beneficial uses.

Check out the foundation's impact by the numbers to get a better sense of what it's been doing. A list of past awardees can be found here.

Unfortunately, the Comer Family Foundation does not accept unsolicited grant applications for any focus area except its syringe exchange program. You can get in touch with general questions via online contact form. To keep up with what issues are grabbing the attention of the Comer staff at any given time, you can follow the foundation posts on LinkedIn.

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