Helen Zell, Zell Family Foundation

TITLE: Executive Director

FUNDING AREAS: Arts and education, with an emphasis on music, literature and culture

IP TAKE: Helen Zell is the Executive Director of the Zell Family Foundation. She is an active philanthropist and thought leader in the arts and education, with an emphasis in music, literature and visual arts. She invests her time in numerous nonprofit organizations, and believes in structuring financial gifts based on tangible results to ensure she can maximize her ability to make a difference. 

PROFILE: Zell’s philanthropic efforts are as eclectic and creative as her professional career. After earning a bachelor's degree in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan, Zell served as editor of journals published by the American Society for Microbiology; project director and acquisitions editor for Science Research Associates, Inc.; and general manager for the Chicago String Ensemble. Later in her career, she also owned an interior design firm. She also holds an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the University of Michigan.

Currently, Zell serves as the Chairman of the board of trustees of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association. She is also on the board of trustees and serves on the executive committee of the Steppenwolf Theater. She is a Trustee, and former Chair, of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. She also serves on the boards of directors of: the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a private-public partnership dedicated to the healthy development of at-risk children; the Chicago Public Education Fund, a nonprofit organization working to improve education in the city; and Teach for America, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting educational equity and excellence for children in low-income communities. Zell is also a member of the Photography Committee at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Her lifelong passion for great literature and commitment to her alma mater, University of Michigan are reflected in her advocacy of the university’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA). In 2013, she led the Zell Family Foundation’s $50 million donation to the college, which was the largest in its history, and widely believed to be, by far, the largest gift ever made in support of a university creative writing program. The Helen Zell Writers’ Program is now nationally recognized as a producer of award-winning authors and literature.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Zell stated, "The ability of fiction to develop creativity, to analyze the human psyche, to help you understand people—it's critical. It's as important as vitamins or anything else. To me, it's the core of the intellectual health of human beings."

Zell has made quite an impact in the art world, and is an avid collector. In a presentation "From Paper Dolls to La Poupee," at the Collectors' Roundtable series at American Art, she described herself as an "obsessive collector" who fills the roles of scholar, curator, conserver, and historian for the family art collection. Her favorite types of art are surrealism and abstract expressionism, and according to Zell, "Living with the collection is the ultimate reward."

She is also pro-choice, and a strong proponent of women’s rights. She made news prior to the last presidential election when the Zell Family Foundation pledged more than $600,000 over three years to improve a Planned Parenthood facility on the North side of Chicago, and hundreds of thousands more to the Chicago division of the American Civil Liberties Union to defend abortion rights.

If your nonprofit would like to get your hands on some Zell dollars, best of luck to you. Unlike many popular foundations in Chicago, the Zell Family Foundation doesn't publicize the parameters of its grant-making or its prior grant-making history. In fact, the foundation keeps its giving close to the vest, and Helen and Sam do not readily give interviews.