Getting to Know Knowles, a Health Philanthropist with a Heart for Chicago

A Chicago-area philanthropist named Nancy W. Knowles recently made news for an eight-figure gift to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), which prompted us to wonder just who this donor is and what drives her giving.

Although Knowles herself isn’t in the medical profession, her connection to health and medicine is strong in the Chicago area. Knowles is the daughter of an orthopedist and joined Knowles Electronics, Inc. in Itasca, Illinois, which was founded by her husband Hugh Knowles. She held different roles in the company, including a position as chairwoman. Knowles Electronics is now owned by the Dover Corporation.

Her recent RIC gift was a capital grant for the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, which is set to open in March 2017 as a research hospital that will bring together clinicians, scientists, innovators, and technologists. More specifically, her money will be supporting a Strength and Endurance Lab at the hospital that will serve patients who need therapy for motor skills and endurance problems. This is one of five labs that will be housed in the hospital. Leftover funds from the grant will be going to build an outdoor green space called “Nancy’s Garden” by the 10th floor sky lobby.

The RIC is the nation’s leading provider of comprehensive physical medicine and rehabilitation care to patients from around the world. And Nancy Knowles herself was a patient of RIC in 2012.

“RIC helped me tremendously and is now making an enormous investment in its new hospital, which will result in novel possibilities and faster cures,” Knowles said in a press release. “It will establish an entirely new model of translational research and clinical care, and I’m honored to be able to support this very worthy mission.”

But this isn’t the first big health grant that Knowles has given in the Chicago area. A couple years ago, her unprecedented donation motivated Elmhurst Memorial Healthcare to rename its Center for Cancer Care "The Nancy W. Knowles Cancer Center" in her honor. In 2014, she donated the largest amount ever committed in the history of any of the Edward-Elmhurst Healthcare hospitals. She has been a donor to the Elmhurst Memorial Hospital Foundation since the 1980s.

Today, Nancy Knowles is the president and treasurer of the Knowles Foundation, which has largely focused grantmaking on health. Community health programs focused on women’s health issues and prevention have received substantial support from Knowles over the years.

Other areas of interest include arts and culture, education, and social services. Knowles’ record-breaking gifts aren’t confined to the field of health either. In 2007, she gave a $10 million gift to Lyric Opera of Chicago, which was the largest gift in the company’s 53-year history. She has been a member of the Lyric Opera Board of Directors since 1998 and has been a donor of the organization since 1990.

Upon that gift announcement, Knowles shared, “Giving back to the community is important and very personal to me. The projects I have supported over the years are worthwhile, and the people involved have become particularly special. When I have a significant personal relationship with an organization, I support it at a higher level.”

Knowles’ Bloomberg profile shares the following additional information about her background:

Ms. Nancy W. Knowles serves as a Director at CellCeuticals Skin Care, Inc. Ms. Knowles has been a member of the American Heart Association of Metropolitan Chicago Women’s Council Board, The Chicago Zoological Society Women’s Board and served on the Board of the Boy Scouts of America. She has been honored by the National Hearing Aid Foundation with the Appreciation for Work Done Award. Ms. Knowles serves as the President of the Knowles Foundation, which supports arts and cultural programs, higher education, health care, and speech and hearing centers. She served as the Chairman of Knowles Electronics. Ms. Knowles served as a Director at Loyola University Health System since 1997. Ms. Knowles was a member of the Lyric Opera Board of Directors, serves on Loyola University Medical Center and was a Trustee of the International Shakespeare Globe in London, England. She worked as a translator for many years after graduation. Ms. Knowles attended St. Mary’s College of Notre Dame and later received her B.A. degree in languages from the University of Iowa.