In celebration of Black Philanthropy Month, the Trust is featuring a series of conversations with Black philanthropists making their impact across the Chicago region. This article is the third in our series—be sure take a look at our previous interviews with James Reynolds, Jr. and Graham Grady.
For Lester, Chanel, and Javon Coney, philanthropy is a family affair. Les, a financial services executive, was the first African American to serve as chair of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. He shares his passion for both the arts and community service with his children, Chanel, 34, head of marketing and external affairs for CFI Partners, and Javon Coney, 32, director of strategic partnerships at FanDuel. In addition to their leadership in nonprofit organizations, the family holds a donor advised fund at the Trust and use their grantmaking to support art organizations and artists of color in the region.
Photo: Chanel Coney and recipients of the Coney Family’s art grant.
The Coneys recently sat down with Meghan Lewit, communications manager at the Trust, to discuss family, faith, and their shared commitment to serving the community. Some questions and answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Meghan Lewit: How would you describe a philanthropist and who are philanthropists in your eyes?
Les Coney: Most simply, it’s someone who gives away money. I was always taught, “To those who have been given so much, it’s important that you give back.” I’m not entirely fulfilled just by my career in finance. But what I have found over the past 20 years is that being part of a community and being active in the community has given me an opportunity to feel more fulfilled about my work. It’s a way of “thank you” to God for his blessings, because if I always receive and never give, that’s like saying I’m not thankful for what I have.
Javon Coney: At a very early age, both our parents instilled in Chanel and me the value and importance of service. I would put service and philanthropy in kind of the same bucket, and I’ve found as I’ve gotten older that service can take many forms. I was a part of President Obama’s advance team for two years at the White House and then spent seven years as a special assistant to [New York City Mayor] Bill de Blasio interacting with constituents and addressing their needs – whether it be public housing, or an intersection that didn’t feel safe, or whatever their concerns may be. I have always felt privileged to be in a position to aid individuals and hopefully assist in making their lives better.
Chanel Coney: Philanthropy over the years has come to mean purely financial giving—and if philanthropic giving is only financial, then Black and Brown voices are going to be excluded from that conversation. Black people have been giving to each other since the beginning of time, but oftentimes it’s unnoticed. For me, giving is an obligation to the community that’s given to me. It’s an obligation to our faith. It’s also a privilege to be in a position to have something to give.
ML: What contribution or philanthropic achievement are you most proud of?
Les Coney: About 16 years ago I started out on the School of the Art Institute of Chicago Board of Governors, which led to the opportunity to be tapped to be on the Art Institute’s Board of Trustees. It was an honor for me to join that board, and while I contribute personally, I’ve been more of a fundraiser than a donor. I’ve found my role in trying to connect the right people and corporations whose mission aligns with the Art Institute’s mission. So when the Art Institute had the opportunity to bring the Obama portraits to the museum this summer I thought this was an opportunity for me to step up and participate. I’m a huge fan of President Obama, as millions of others are, and I’m so happy to be the lead sponsor of bringing that exhibit to Chicago along with [former Trust Executive Committee member and Chair Elect of the Art Institute Board of Trustees] Denise Gardner.
Javon Coney: It was kind of the icing on the top with our dad being able to play a lead role to make the Chicago presentation of the portraits a success. And Chanel and I mentioned to our dad: “It would be great if we could find a unique way to include a small group of younger professionals who could contribute to the Art Institute through the portraits coming and be a small part of that history.” We decided that given he was the 44th president, we would reach out to 11 individuals giving a $4,000 donation to the Art Institute and we called it the 44 Club. We’ve been very excited about getting this group together, and it’s a very diverse group of young professionals that are doing amazing work. We’re thrilled to just play a small role in it and excited to see the impact in the community.
ML: What causes do you choose to support and why?
Chanel Coney: My focus is very much in the arts and has always been in the arts. I grew up acting and dancing, and I know the soft skills that instills in people. But I also know the lack of support to people of color in these areas. An opportunity presented itself at the Chicago Artists Coalition to create our own personal family grant – an unrestricted grant where artists are able to determine where the money should go. We’ve been doing that now for five years, specifically supporting Black visual artists in Chicago.
Les Coney: The arts award is something that Chanel created and has grown on her own. Chanel and I are focused on giving in Chicago, because you tend to do more in your own community. But having said that, I give Javon a lot of credit because his work at the White House and with the New York City mayor, and in his current role, is all about the community and is a form of community service as well.
ML: Why did you decide to partner with The Chicago Community Trust to fulfill your charitable giving?
Les Coney: When I became chairman of the Goodman Theatre I got to know both The Chicago Community Trust and the Joyce Foundation and they changed the landscape because they started to say to organizations that if you want funding from the Trust or the Joyce Foundation, you have to show more diversity on your board. And that really made more nonprofits think about diversifying their boards, so I got to know the Trust a lot better during that period. I was also fortunate to meet Trust President and CEO Dr. Helene Gayle when we both served on the board of the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation in Atlanta. When she moved to Chicago to take the leadership role at the Trust I was inspired to work more directly with the organization. I learned about the Donor Advised Fund program, and I thought I would like to be a part of this because it does such a great job of streamlining the giving process. For families like ours you’re able to pull the process right off the shelf and get started, and it gave me an opportunity to be working with an organization that we have a very high regard for.
Chanel Coney: I’m actually on the advisory committee of an organization called Innovation 80, which supports underserved populations through the arts. I was asked to join by founders Arnie and Carol Kanter, and then came to find out it was run through The Chicago Community Trust, which just goes to show the different ways that the Trust is working with families to accomplish their goals.
ML: What message would you share with someone who is at the beginning of their philanthropic journey?
Les Coney: The first nonprofit board that I sat on was the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. I started joining other boards, but there was no strategy involved. I was just saying yes because I was glad that somebody thought I could be helpful. Then one day my friend Stedman Graham said to me, “Boy Les, you are all over the place. You really should sit down one day and figure out what you really enjoy. And you may say you enjoy everything, but there’s got to be something that stands above the others.” At first I didn’t understand what he was saying, but I realized the arts was the area I enjoyed the most. I think the most important thing is, participate in something you have a passion for. And if possible, try to find something that’s in line with where your employer or corporation is interested in giving back and try to get them to participate as well.
Chanel Coney: I would add that you don’t have to start with the funding component. Think about the organizations you’re passionate about today with the intention of maybe getting to a place where that would include financial support.
Javon Coney: It’s so important to be exposed to different walks of life and all the different ways that people are experiencing their day-to-day. When you can really see and feel what people are going through, that really inspires you to get involved.