Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Foundation: Chicago Grants

OVERVIEW: Patrick and Shirley Ryan are well known throughout the Chicago area, and their foundation's grants are large and often newsworthy. The couple carry out most of their grantmaking duties to fund programs for the arts, education, youth services, and Catholic churches.

FUNDING AREAS: Education, arts, Catholic churches and schools, and youth services

IP TAKE: Although Patrick and Shirley Ryan are one of Chicago's most prominent power couples, they like to keep their grantmaking low-key. Give the foundation a call to fish for information about how you can pitch your education or arts proposal to them.

PROFILE: The Ryans are one of those Chicago power couples who have their hands in pretty much everything going on around the city. Like many philanthropists in Chicago, Patrick Ryan made his fortune in the insurance business. He started selling insurance policies straight of out college and founded Pat Ryan & Associates in 1964. In 1982, he merged Ryan Specialty Group and Combined International to create Aon, which was the largest reinsurance broker in the world. Patrick retired in 2008 to focus on Chicago's bid for the 2016 Olympics, which ultimately was a bust. Since then, Ryan's companies have been eating other insurance firms for breakfast, acquiring and expanding to squeeze in Atlantic Star Intermediaries and the United Kingdom's Direct Group.

Ryan has been immersed in national politics, but he doesn't play favorites — at least not publicly. He and his wife, Shirley, hosted President George W. Bush and his family for a couple of fundraiser dinners at their suburban Winnetka home in 2004. Then in 2008, Patrick was named one of Barack Obama's five co-chairs for the inaugural committee. The powerful couple is passionate about the tradition of sports in Chicago as well. The Ryans have contributed extensively to the athletic department at Northwestern University, Patrick's alma mater, renovating the Welsh-Ryan Arena and Ryan Field. They've also held something like 20 percent ownership of the Chicago Bears NFL football team.

The couple started channeling their fortune into the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Foundation in 1984. Most Ryan Foundation grants go toward education, the arts, Catholic causes, and youth services. Past foundation grants spread around Chicago include $7.5 million to Northwestern University's family therapy program, $1.3 million to Alain Locke's charter school initiative, $875,000 to the Art Institute of Chicago, and $550,000 to the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The Ryan Foundation's assets are being disbursed at record speed, so either the Ryans are trying to check philanthropy off their to-do list or they're expecting a serious return on their investments soon. 

The Ryan Foundation doesn't have a website and doesn't make itself very accessible to the general public. Since the Ryans are now in their 70s and retired, they handle most of the grantmaking duties directly and use a secretary to carrying out the administrative tasks. They have worked education reform organization, Resources for Learning, do develop portfolio assessments for Chicago teacher certification programs, draft new charter school standards, and create an assessment and accountability system.

The foundation doesn't accept applications and contributes only to pre-selected organizations. However, not all of these organizations are as prominent as the Art Institute and the Lyric Opera. The Ryans tend to grant a few awards each year in the $10,000 to $25,000 range to smaller schools and music organizations, such as the Music Institute of Chicago and the Providence Saint Mel School.

Towards the end of a recent year, the foundation reported over $23 million in assets and more than $8 million in total giving. Assets have gone down and giving has gone up from recent years. The best way to get in touch with the foundation is by phone at 312-893-6600.

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