Chicago has lost a major donor to the city’s arts and education collections

Through the Zell Family Charitable Foundation, which he heads with his wife Helen, Zell donates millions annually to nonprofits, schools, and organizations throughout the Chicago area, revealing a strong philanthropic commitment to the city’s arts and education scene, including large donations to Jewish schools.

In its 2020 tax returns, the most recent publicly available records for the Zell Family Foundation, the foundation reported $279 million in total assets, making it the 10th largest foundation in Chicago for that year, according to Crain’s list of largest foundations. in the city.

“The impact of the Zell Family Foundation on the Chicago arts and culture scene is profound,” said Brock Flanagan, Executive Director of the Steppenwolf Theatre. She added that the organization was “deeply saddened by the loss”.

According to its 2020 tax returns, the nonprofit donated more than $55 million to Chicago organizations and causes that year, including committing more than $20 million to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and more than a million each to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the Steppenwolf Theater Company. Helen Szell serves on the board of trustees for each of these cultural organizations.

In addition to awarding the position of CSO’s Music Director, the Zell Family Foundation has provided ongoing support for additional activities of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, including sponsorship of concerts, art programs, sponsorship of tours, and commissioning of new music.

In 2012, the Zell Foundation made a $10 million gift to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, which museum president Madeline Grenztein called a “game-changer” at the time.

The foundation’s records also reveal its dedication to educational organizations, leading early childhood education in the city.

“Sam and Helen have had an incredibly powerful impact on children and families in Chicago,” said Jane McCarthy, managing director of Start Early, an early childhood development nonprofit that said it has received more than $25 million in donations and gifts from Zell. Family Foundation since 1996. “It’s a legacy that will evolve far beyond its lifetime.”

McCarthy describes a man interested in the future of Chicago’s youth and willing to listen to the needs of the organization. He was an entrepreneur, she said, so he knew that “the best return on investment is to start early and give the kids the best chance of success.”

The foundation has also donated significantly to Jewish schools and non-profit organizations in the city. Two Jewish schools bear the name of his late parents.

Rochelle Zell Jewish High School, named after his late mother Rochelle Zell, received a gift of more than $10 million in 2015, Deerfield principal Tony Frank said, helping the school secure its finances.

“We were looking at a large debt that we were struggling to pay off, and his family’s foundation gift was a turnaround for us,” he said. Frank added that some of Zell’s grandchildren attended the school.

“He was a force in business, and just as much a force in philanthropy,” said Frank.

Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School in Lakeview, named after his late father Bernard Zell, received more than $25 million in a bequest from the foundation in 2015, plus annual contributions.

Barnard’s principal, Gary Wasserman, said he wanted to “ensure excellence in Jewish education” and be able to provide an education that was “accessible to all.” A portrait of Bernhard Siehl hangs in the school.

“It is a place that guarantees both Jewish continuity and the students’ ability to lead meaningful Jewish lives,” he said.

The Zell family has also presented to the University of Chicago and funds the Zell Fellows Entrepreneurship Program at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

The Zell Family Foundation did not respond to a request for comment. The organization does not have a website but is listed at 2 N. Riverside Plaza on its tax returns. According to the latest filing, Helen Zell is listed as Executive Director and Sam Zell as President. His three children — Kelly, Matthew, and Joanne Zell — are listed as vice presidents of the foundation.

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