FUNDING AREAS: Education, human rights, health care, medical research, and arts and culture
SOURCE OF WEALTH: Cofounder of Groupon, founder of Lightbank venture capital firm
NET WORTH: $1.65 billion
OVERVIEW: In 2006, Lefkofsky and his wife, Liz, formed a charitable trust called the Lefkofsky Family Foundation with a mission of "supporting charitable, scientific, educational organizations, and causes around the world." The foundation's stated purpose is to "advance high-impact programs, initiatives and research that enhance the quality of human life in the communities we serve." The foundation's grantmaking is evaluated quarterly, and its choice of grants is focused in several key areas, including education, human rights, medical research, and arts and culture. Most of the money is focused on the Lefkofskys' hometown of Chicago, with the largest donations in arts and culture.
BACKGROUND: Described by some as a "serial entrepreneur," Lefkofsky began his career by selling carpet as a freshman at the University of Michigan. After law school, he and his longtime business partner, Bradley Keywell, borrowed money to buy Brandon Apparel in 1994. That company failed and led to more than a decade of lawsuits. In 1999, Keywell and Lefkofsky founded an Internet company, Starbelly, that specialized in promotional products. He sold Starbelly for $240 million just before the dot-com bubble burst.
Creating, buying, and selling one company after another eventually led to his creation of Groupon, which became one of the latest darlings of the tech industry and one of the most successful Internet IPOs in recent years. However, the company's stock has lost most of its value.
PHILOSOPHY: Aside from giving back to their hometown and various education initiatives, the Lefkoskys' have shown to have a wide-ranging philanthropic strategy. They are also signatories of the Giving Pledge.
EDUCATION: Many of the education initiatives Eric and Liz support are focused in the Greater Chicago area. They support younger children in particular, while also giving to charter schools, after-school programs for disadvantaged youth, and scholarship programs. On a broader scale, the Lefkofskys support organizations that seek to develop tools for teachers and administrators. One such group is New Leaders and Educators for Excellence. Perhaps the most innovative program the Lefkofskys support is called Moneythink, which provides mentors to teach financial education in urban schools. As an alumnus of the University of Michigan, Eric has donated quite a bit to the university over the years, the most substantial gift being the $1.2 million given to the school's Health System. He has made substantial gifts to Chicago-area universities Northwestern and DePaul as well.
HEALTH: Health is one of the few areas of the couple's philanthropy that isn't confined to Chicago. As a child, Liz lost her older sister to cancer. Liz's mother, Susan Kramer, started the the American Brain Tumor Association (ABTA) in the wake of her daughter's death. ABTA, Damon Runyon, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center have all received funds. Another key area appears to be supporting medical centers in and around Chicago, particularly those that care for children, as well as several donations to pancreatic cancer, though the Lefkofskys have also supported research into treatments and cures for thyroid cancer, lung cancer, and leukemia. Organizations that focus on cardiovascular disease, Crohn's disease, Alzheimer's, Lupus, brain tumors, celiac disease, cystic fibrosis, and food allergies have received donations as well. This approach makes it seem as if there is no real plan, agenda, or strategy behind the giving other than to support research into treatments and cures for as many different health-related issues as possible. As far as donation amounts go, they have included $400,000 to Johns Hopkins, nearly $200,000 for a children's hospital in Chicago, more than $100,000 for lung cancer research, and $6,000 to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. The Lefkofskys also support the global health initiative Medical Missions for Children, and in late 2015 donated 785,000 to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
HUMAN RIGHTS: Although the Lefkofsky Family Foundation claims human rights as one of its four main areas of interest, there doesn't seem to be much broad-scale support in this area. Of the two major organizations that received support, Human Rights Watch was given $100,000 donation and the Anti-Defamation League appears to have received less than that amount. Other organizations listed under human rights on the foundation's website would more rightly be categorized as local community support and advocacy. Organizations such as Planned Parenthood of Illinois, the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center have been listed, as are a PAC to support pro-choice candidates, a couple of Jewish advocacy groups, a Chicago community for people with developmental disabilities, and an organization that serves homeless Chicagoans. The known donation amounts to these organizations are generally rather small, and while it is great that the Lefkofskys are giving back to their local community and supporting pro-choice and Jewish organizations, these are not generally the types of organizations or the sorts of issues one normally associates with human rights.
ARTS AND CULTURE: The vast majority of the Lefkofskys' giving in arts and culture is done in their hometown of Chicago. Their largest contribution to any organization to date is the $7 million they have given to the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art has received roughly $2.5 million, and the Art Institute of Chicago at least $1.5 million. Aside from the major support of these two museums, the Lefkofskys' other major cultural contribution was a $100,000 donation to the organization responsible for Chicago's 2016 Olympic bid. They have made smaller contributions, generally ranging from $1,000 to $20,000, to other Chicago-areas museums, dance, theatre, and ballet companies, a public radio station, and the Chicago Botanic Garden. One of their few gifts outside the Chicago area went to the Aspen Art Museum.
TECH: The Lefkofsky Family Foundation partnered with both Google and the Motorola Mobility foundation to create 1871 FEMtech, which we've covered here. The three have supported FEMtech with over half a million dollars, with the hopes of encouraging and enabling more female tech entrepreneurs to break into the field.
LOOKING FORWARD: With a fancy new website, a motivated staff, and recent billionaire founders who are only in their 40s, the Lefkofsky Family Foundation is in a good position to become a bigger player on issues that extend beyond the Chicago area.
- Lefkofsky Family Foundation, 600 West Chicago Ave, Suite 700, Chicago, IL 60654, 312-906-7477
- Lefkofsky Family Foundation general inquries, firstname.lastname@example.org