Irving Harris Foundation: Chicago Grants

OVERVIEW: The Irving Harris Foundation specializes in early childhood education grants. Although the popular Ounce of Prevention Fund is the foundation's pet project, a few art, dance, and theater organizations regularly receive funding as well. The Foundation regularly awards $10 to $15 million in grants annually.

FUNDING AREAS: Jewish charities, early childhood education, museums, hospitals, and housing development

IP TAKE: Keep Irving Harris in mind if early childhood education is your business. The foundation's grants are modest in size, and you'll need to reach out to the staff for procedural instructions.

PROFILE: Businessman and philanthropist Irving B. Harris has always been involved in the lives Chicago's youngest residents, even when his views caused a stir among the older ones. Although he never went to the salon for a perm, Harris's success began when he bought the Toni Home Permanent Company and sold it to Gillette in 1948.

Moving from hair care to the New York Stock Exchange, Harris became a partner at R.J. Levy & Company in 1957 until his family assets became so large that he had to become a full-time manager of them. In spite of his support of early education programs, Harris's views have seen controversy. Critics point to his 1994 Chicago Tribune editorial, which seemed to defend federally funded abortion because children born to poor mothers created costs that were too high for society.

But alas, Harris is the founder of one of Chicago's most popular early education programs, the Ounce of Prevention Fund. Before the research was there, Harris believed that the best way to break intergenerational cycles of poverty was to intervene during children's first five years of life. Although the Irving Harris Foundation was established back in 1946, it didn't create major waves through the city until Harris began awarding grants to early education teaching training programs at the Erikson Institute, the Beethoven Project, the Early Childhood Study Center at Yale University, Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago, and 500 Head Start programs across the country.

Past grants include a $500,000 grant to the Ounce of Prevention Fund for general operating support, $1 million to the University of Chicago for early education programs, $175,000 to Planned Parenthood of Illinois, and $40,000 to the Chicago Abortion Fund. Irving Harris has joined forces with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, and the McCormick Foundation to raise over $11 million in support for minority infants and toddlers over a year.

At the end of a past year, the foundation reported over $272.7 million in assets and over $14.1 million in total giving.

But before you write off Irving Harris as a foundation that exclusively funds causes related to babies and toddlers, consider the broader program focus areas that have grant budgets as well. Its average grantmaking per year is in the $10 million to $15 million range.

But Irving wasn't the only Harris who contributed to the creation of this foundation. There are still plenty of wealthy folks with the Harris name walking around Chicago. Before it was renamed the Irving Harris Foundation, it was simply called the Harris Foundation. Nancy Meyer is the current chairperson and Joan W. Harris is the current president. Irving Harris has three full-time professional staff and three full-time support staff.

At the time this profile was updated, the foundation's website was still under construction and has been for quite some time. So check back later to see if the staff has released any information about application procedures. In the meantime, the best way to keep up with Irving Harris is on the foundation's Facebook page. To inquire about Irving Harris's application process and deadlines, reach out to Meg Leary by phone at 312-621-3814 or by email at


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