Our Charities: Postpone, Go Virtual, Survive







Editor’s note: This is part one of a three-part series profiling some of Chicago’s non-profits in these perilous times.


“There is so much tragic news out there in terms of life and job loss. We want to stand in relationship with those who have been a part of Perspectives, through texting, emails, and our virtual gala. The jury is still out in terms of fundraising, but we want to remain tireless in our responsibilities to the children in our programs.”
—Diana Shulla-Cose, co-founder of Chicago’s Perspectives Charter Schools, whose $1 million gala, set to take place May 7th at the Ritz Hotel, was cancelled due to COVID-19.


Diana Shulla-Cose.

“On the Horizon” summed up the title of a Classic Chicago column new this year describing anticipated charitable events through the eyes of volunteer chairs who had spent up to a year planning these fundraisers. Not only did these events meet six-figure bottom line goals set to fund key initiatives, but also brought tremendous visibility through their cleverness.

Through March we saw events that we profiled or planned to profile removed from the calendar due to COVID-19 restrictions. While the horizon now stretches beyond where the eye can see, we champion the nimble responses we are seeing: extending subscription deadlines, rebooking, and switching live events to virtual gatherings.

We see the heartbreak as many must furlough or let go of staff, or terminate classes beloved by the public, and extol the community dedication as supporters—with or without a gala—pledge to continue as donors.


Katie Frekko and Brooke Kuehnle, co-chairs of this year’s Woman’s Board Spring Luncheon.

For twenty-six years the Woman’s Board of Rush University Medical Center has brought forth vibrant voices with powerful messages to sold-out audiences each spring. From the first luncheon featuring fashion editor Grace Mirabella to speakers throughout the years including Madeleine Albright, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Laura Bush, Sherry Lansing, Nora Ephron, and other enlivening legends, the Rush Spring Luncheon bursts forth each year as the event to inspire. This year’s co-chairs Katie Frekko and Brooke Kuehnle set a goal of 550 attendees to hear businesswoman, humanitarian, and philanthropist Cindy McCain to speak April 16th.

The much-anticipated spring social event where women first select frilly florals and pastel suits for the season and anticipate seeing friends who have been away all winter, always has a profound underlying purpose: this year’s event backed Rush’s determination to study and pilot new models of care delivery for cancer patients. On average, cancer patients have to wait almost a month for first treatments to begin and then struggle to navigate the complexity of care. This project aims to reduce patients’ time to first treatment and create value and reduce costs.


Last year’s packed luncheon.

“We are determined to create the perfect experience for all cancer patients, which they so deserve: coordinated, cost-effective, and highly compassionate,” Frekko told us in March. “These should be extra special services that let people know how much the center cares about them.”

Woman’s Board President Cindy Nicolaides explained that social media has become the board’s main avenue for getting the message out about their cause. They have been regularly posting information regarding Rush’s COVID-19 Response Fund, which supports those on the front line, including hardship costs such as food, childcare, and eldercare; patients and their families, including hospital equipment needs and technology to connect patients and visitors amid restrictions (donate here).


Cindy Nicolaides.

The Woman’s Board continues to work extremely closely with the hospital: “Our contacts within the philanthropy department have kept us informed on the developments within the hospital. The Woman’s Board runs the gift shops within the hospital—with their closure, Rush HR has been instrumental in helping redeploy our employees. And, we are still planning for the future. For instance, Rush legal has been working on contracts for our Fall Benefit scheduled for October 2nd and for our luncheon for next spring. We are very excited and would like everyone to save Tuesday, May 11, 2021 to join us at the Hilton Chicago to hear Cindy McCain.”


Music Institute of Chicago President Mark George.

Founded in 1931, the Music Institute of Chicago, leads people toward a lifelong engagement with music by providing widely accessible resources for high-quality music teaching, performing, and service activities, harnessing the power of music to educate, inspire, and bring comfort to the communities it serves. Over 2000 students participate in its programs.

We spoke with Mark George, it’s president and CEO, about how the organization is handling this current crisis: “The Music Institute faculty has been amazing in their transition to videoconference teaching. Collectively, they have developed and shared best practices for colleagues and students, truly a wellspring of creativity.”

“The staff has adapted well to working from home, maintaining all of the Music Institute’s essential functions, registration, customer service, accounting, and fundraising,” he adds. “Everything is new and everything is a challenge. So far, the crisis has brought out the best in us.”

Speaking about the cancellation of this month’s gala, George shared, “The cancellation of the Music Institute’s Anniversary Gala, which was to have occurred on April 20, put a lot of pressure on our budget. Many Gala supporters have now converted their contributions to outright donations to the school. The institution has committed to continuing full compensation and benefits for our faculty and staff. The Board of Trustees has established the Nichols COVID-19 Support Fund to aid that effort. We have found that people are generally willing to support our school, especially if they have already been connected in some way.”


Honorary Chair John Nichols, 2019 Dushkin Award recipient Wynton Marsalis, and Honorary Chair and MIC Chair Emerita Alexandra Nichols. Photo by Ana Miyares.

“Like most of the world, the Music Institute faculty, staff, and students have been anxious about their current safety and future lifestyle. But we have found that people want their music lessons and recitals to continue,” he says. “They want some semblance of normalcy for their children and themselves. Interactive videoconferencing has allowed us to continue most of our private teaching and classes. It has been heartening how many of our students are reaching out to the world to share their music.”

Though all concerts and events at Nichols Concert Hall have been cancelled or postponed, the MIC is planning a special “recovery” concert to occur sometime in the summer.


Laurie and Jim Bay. By Cheri Eisenberg.

One of the first groups to respond to the challenge of postponing an annual event was The Antiquarian Society at the Art Institute of Chicago. President Laurie Bay told us: “During these times, it’s so important to have hope and something special to look forward to when this pandemic is behind us—we can’t forget the arts, which are so precious to us all. The arts need us all right now.”

The chairs, Julia Kyle, Mary Glerum, and Margaret Marshall, were on top of everything. Designer Thomas Jayne is a friend of Ellenor Alcorn, the Art institute’s Curator of Decorative Arts, and she and Sarah Kelly Oehler will be interviewing him as he makes his presentation at the Antiquarian Society Autumn Luncheon on its new date: September 15.


Save the date!

The ballroom is always full of ladies who enjoy a great lecture (and beautiful table settings) in an iconic setting. The chatter is loud, smiles abound, and the spirit of the event is a celebratory one where everyone feels special just to be involved.

“The luncheon has a heritage of being a lovely affair, and we promise not to disappoint! How could we not carry on with a fabulous tradition that everyone anticipates?” Bay says. “Our speaker was most understanding and gracious, the curators were right on board, and all our vendors willingly made the transition—it was meant to be. We hope that everyone comes out of this horrible virus situation safely and in good health and ready to rejoin the human race and party at our luncheon in September.”

Porchlight Music Theatre had to cancel its spring production of Disney’s Freaky Friday, a Chicago premiere, along with several events: their 25th Anniversary ICONS Gala, honoring Broadway legend Joel Grey and the inspiring contributions of Arlen and Elaine Cohen Rubin; the next edition of their series introducing new talent to their audiences, New Faces Sing Broadway 1987; and all of their scheduled young people’s programming.


Michael Weber, Gary Griffin, and Jeannie Lukow at last year’s Porchlight Music Theatre ICONS Gala.

Jeannie Lukow, Executive Director of Porchlight Music Theatre, favorite of some of our city’s most enthusiastic theatergoers, explains, “We wanted to put the health of our patrons, actors, and staff first. Before making the announcement, of course, we had ensured that we had crafted the appropriate communications to all of our constituencies—actors, technical crew, directors, musicians, and more—as well as subscribers, single ticket buyers, Gala attendees, and students.”

“Our team has been working diligently at keeping our audiences engaged, informed, and entertained. We have been very active on social media through our Facebook and Instagram accounts including content on our recently announced 2020-2021 season that includes Legally Blonde, Titanic and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, among many other productions, fun activities for the kids from our education department, and original content from our artistic director, Michael Weber,” she says.


Donica Lynn performs “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” 2019.

Lukow shares that the response from their efforts has been very positive: “Our patrons understand our current situation and how it is unprecedented in all of our lives. Many have converted their tickets to donations and have made additional much-appreciated donations. We are also heartened by emails we have received from patrons and donors letting us know they are thinking about us and how the posts help them get through their day. It is a much-needed comfort at these times when so much in the news is not the most uplifting.”


25th Anniversary Committee Chairs Bill Kurtis, Donna La Pietra, Deann and Rick Bayless. Photo by Michael Courier.

They hope to reschedule the 25th Anniversary ICONS Gala and launch their 26th season this fall with the lighthearted musical Legally Blonde. “We cannot wait to welcome the Porchlight family back to the theatre. Every opportunity when we can gather together and share art will be an occasion for celebration, and we look forward to interacting with everyone again!”

Diana Shulla Cose, quoted at the start of this story, described her and her team’s tireless work in the face of COVID-19. With over 2,000 students on the South Side of Chicago, Perspectives Charter Schools provide rigorous and relevant learning, ethical leadership, and social and emotional curriculum in five schools at three locations.

“We are working to stay whole and innovative at this time of uncertainty. I am amazed at what we can do from home,” she shares. “We are reaching for a relentless spirit in our work that challenges us to try to meet the digital divide for our students and try to help create a level playing field.”


Jalan Jordan, a Perspectives senior.

She explains at least 80 percent of their students don’t have WiFi, a hotspot to connect to, or a computer—and if they do, it is often being shared between siblings and parents. So, they have created packets of class materials that have gone to students’ homes and are providing 880 tablets, making sure to check in with students and families to make sure there is available Internet connection.

Shulla-Cose said that Perspectives has turned to those same students to come up with a way to replace their annual gala projected to raise $1 million on May 7: “Students always drove that event anyway. They served as MCs, a teacher and a student sat at each table for 10, and now they launched for us on Monday, March 31, our first virtual gala campaign, told in their own words. We are also featuring memories from our past galas on Thursdays and then on Fridays, students will share lessons on being a student and other ideas. Our students are inspiring.”


In Parts 2 and 3, on April 12 and April 19, we will profile The Woman’s Board of Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Red Clay Dance Theater, Facets, the Belmont Theater District, the Athenaeum Theater, and other non-profits. If you would like to share your organization’s story at this time, please email me at judycbross@aol.com.