Zell Family Foundation: Chicago Grants

OVERVIEW: The Zell Family Foundation tends to award grants to well-established organizations in education emphasizing entrepreneurship and literature, and in music and visual arts.  

FUNDING AREAS: Education emphasizing entrepreneurship and literature, and in music and visual arts

IP TAKE: The Zell Family Foundation doesn’t accept grant applications, so if you're seeking funds, you're better off looking elsewhere. The foundation prefers to fund organizations to which it is already connected.

PROFILE: Although you only read about the foundation’s $10 million and $50 million gifts, many of the Zell grants are in the $1 million range. Most grant funds stay within the Chicago city limits, but a notable portion is allocated to the University of Michigan, from which the couple graduated.

The Zell Foundation was founded and is currently run by billionaire entrepreneur Sam Zell and his wife, Helen, who is the foundation’s executive director. Sam runs the private investment firm he founded over 45 years ago, and serves as chairman of five companies on the New York Stock Exchange. Helen serves as the chairman of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and is on the boards of Steppenwolf Theatre, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Ounce of Prevention Fund, Chicago Public Education Fund, and Teach for America. She is an avid art collector.

Outside of the Zell Family Foundation’s major grants, which reflect the couple’s passions and significant time investments, the foundation has awarded smaller grants to nearly every type of charity organization you can think of: arts, education, medicine, cancer research, recreation, youth development, human services, and so on. Past Zell grants in Chicago have included $1 million to Northwestern University's Lurie Cancer Center, $750,000 to the Chicago Public Education Fund, and $550,000 to the Jewish United fund of Metropolitan Chicago.

Sam Zell amassed his fortune through entrepreneur endeavors, starting in real estate. He is recognized as a founding father of the modern public real estate industry, and created three of the industry’s largest real estate investment trusts. He has also built dozens of companies in other industries, including energy, manufacturing, logistics/transportation, healthcare and media. Companies in his current investment portfolio include Anixter International, a leading global provider of communications, security, and wire/cable products; Ardent Health Services, a hospital operating company; Covanta Holding Corporation, an international owner/operator of energy-from-waste and power generation facilities; Crystal Equity Energy, an oil and gas venture in North Dakota’s Bakken and Three Forks formations; Exterran Holdings, Inc., a global market leader in natural gas production and processing services; Par Petroleum, an oil and gas exploration and production company; SIRVA Worldwide Inc., a provider of moving and relocation services; Veridiam, a specialty alloy manufacturer for the nuclear power, medical, aerospace and automotive markets.

While the bulk of Sam’s investments fly under the radar, he made headlines when he led the going-private transaction of Tribune Company, the subsequent sale of the Chicago Cubs, and Tribune’s bankruptcy.

At the end of a recent year, the foundation reported over $67 million in assets and more than $18 million in total giving. The Zell Family Foundation does not have a website, and there is no administrative staff to reach out to. 


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