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From Leo Burnett to Lurie Children’s Hospital, Linda Wolf is one of Chicago’s truly engaged and accomplished leaders.

Wolf retired as chairman and CEO of Leo Burnett Worldwide after a 27-year career with the advertising agency. Today she shares her acumen and expertise as a board member for the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and The Chicago Community Trust—where she will take on the role of Executive Committee chair in January 2018.

Ad exec + civic leader Linda Wolf on philanthropy, what’s so special about Chicago and what’s next for the Trust

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Wolf has been a champion of the Trust’s Unity Fund—an annual movement to fortify the essential service organizations addressing critical needs in our community.

She recently sat down with the Trust’s director of development, Antonio Martinez Jr., to share her insight into what’s so special about Chicago, what inspires her philanthropy, and what’s next for the Trust.


Tony Martinez: First of all, we want to thank you so much for your support. We’re so appreciative of you and the other donors who contribute on an annual basis to the Unity Fund, and looking forward to really enhancing the work that we’re doing through that program.

But let’s get a bit more personal. You and your family are very philanthropic: what shapes your giving? What inspires you to give?

Linda Wolf: I have been fortunate to have very inspiring civic role models. I think Chicago is a very philanthropic city, with people who are very compassionate and willing to give their time and their dollars to the issues that face the city. I think that’s been true for a long time.

With role models like that, if you move into leadership roles within the city, you can’t help but want to emulate what they’re doing.

TM: Absolutely. Are there areas of giving that you focus on?

LW: Actually, it’s been rather diverse. In terms of giving, it’s in the medical area, in the hospitals; it’s in culture, in the museums. And what I love about The Chicago Community Trust is that I can give and I know that it’s going to so many different, important, critical areas.

Photo of Linda Wolf with the quote: Chicago is a very philanthropic city, with people who are very compassionate and willing to give their time and their dollars to the issues that face the city.

TM: What role do you see for the Trust in assisting you with your philanthropic efforts?

LW: I think the Trust plays a very important role: not just giving people that option to contribute in many different areas, but also knowing that when they give to Unity and other Trust initiatives, a lot of expertise is being contributed to that decision.

TM: Drawing on the expertise of our program officers, to identify where communities were feeling truly urgent needs—that’s essential to the Unity Fund, ever since it was launched back in late 2008.

LW: It was during the financial crisis.

TM: Yes, in response to the Great Recession. We supported essential community needs already; but suddenly we needed to be more responsive. We approached our donor advised fund holders and asked them if they would be willing to give.

The need was just, as you know, tremendous. We had long lines at shelters, neighbors going to food pantries for the first time because they’d lost their jobs. We really wanted to infuse dollars to the nonprofits struggling to meet demand for their services. They just couldn’t keep up.

LW: Even today, with all the challenges that are going on in the world and in the city, what’s very appealing about the Unity Fund is that you know you can donate dollars, and they’re really going to go to the most critical areas, and they’re going to go there now.

I think a lot of times, as you read the paper and you see what is happening, you say, “How can I make a difference? How can I help?” And I think in this case, the Unity Fund is a wonderful opportunity to help—knowing that, again, there is such expertise in terms of where the dollars are most needed, and where they’re needed most quickly.

Photo of Antonio Martinez Jr. with the quote: Unity Fund has that essence: Let's really tackle some big issues. Let's really get together, and make things better. With partnership from donors, it's just going to get stronger.

TM: Now obviously, as the incoming Executive Committee chair, your leadership role at the Trust will soon be increasing tremendously. What are your thoughts about the Trust as we move forward?

LW: I see the focus growing on collective philanthropy. On working very closely with our donors, in partnership, to focus on the issues that are facing the city. I think we have the opportunity to be a catalyst, to bring a lot of organizations together for that kind of collective philanthropy.

TM: As you know, from your work going back to the Partnership for New Communities and beyond, it’s always great to bring different groups together: foundations, corporations, donors… I’m excited as part of the Development and Donor Services team to really broaden that.

If we can really find those moments, create those opportunities where we can be responsive together, it’s just going to make our impact more powerful.

LW: That is very true.

TM: I’ve always admired Unity because it has that essence: Let’s really tackle some big issues. Let’s really get together, and make things better. Moving forward, with support and partnership from donors, it’s just going to get stronger.


Whatever you give helps where you live. Make a donation to support our neighbors in need through the Unity Fund today.