Giving Back Illustration
Illustration by Borja Bonaque

Profiting from Giving Back

Childhood experiences spurred two Chicago leaders to a lifelong dedication to philanthropy.

Throughout a long and successful career that took him to the top of the corporate world, John Edwardson, ’72, held true to a value he learned as a child—the importance of giving back. “All four of my grandparents were active in social service work,” said Edwardson, the retired chairman and CEO of Vernon Hills, Illinois-based CDW, and a University of Chicago trustee. “Two were immigrants and none made it past the eighth grade, but they lived in small towns where people took care of each other. I learned just from being with them.”

Liz Thompson Liz ThompsonUniversity of Chicago trustee Liz Thompson’s admiration for nonprofit causes likewise began at a young age, when she found engaging after-school programs at youth organizations during her upbringing in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing complex. “If it wasn’t for my parents and some really serious people who were looking to help people like me, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today,” Thompson said.

The two are now philanthropists themselves: Thompson started the Chicago branch of national service organization City Year, and now runs the Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education with her husband, retired McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson. Edwardson provided a $5 million founding donation to Booth’s Social Enterprise Initiative and lends his name to the John Edwardson, ’72, Social New Venture Challenge. They recently sat down with SEI executive director Christina Hachikian, AB ’02, MBA ’07, to discuss the importance of philanthropy in their lives.

Hachikian: What were some of your earliest experiences with giving back?

Thompson: The first program that I volunteered for was called Junior Achievement, where I would teach young people about the principles of entrepreneurship. When I would go to work the next day, I’d spend all of my time thinking about those kids. It made me realize my calling was doing something other than what I was doing. I left a great job at Ameritech to start City Year in Chicago, and it changed my life.

To me, giving back is not just something nice to do. My notion of philanthropy comes from the idea that to whom much is given, much is expected, but also that we can’t do it on our own.

Edwardson: I remember being in my grandfather’s grocery store in the late ’50s, when a woman came in and gave him a quarter, but didn’t take anything with her. He told me that he had given her family food for a couple of years when they had no income, and she was paying it back a quarter per week. He explained to me that they would never pay it off, but that helping them out was the right thing to do.

In my career, I found it helpful to go from boardrooms to doing work with people who had different lifestyles than I had. It kept me grounded over the years.

There is no question that you have to work hard, but people want to follow somebody for whom it is not all about them. It is important as a leader to remember that.

John Edwardson

Hachikian: As philanthropists now, how do you decide what organizations to get involved with?

Thompson: When I look at the executive director and staff, I evaluate whether they have their act together. Because I was executive director for a couple of nonprofits, I know what to look for. Of course I’m looking at the financials, but I also want to see the staff in action. To give my time, I need to know that it will be used as effectively as possible.

Edwardson: I am really looking for a return on investment. For Social New Venture Challenge winners, I look at whether the companies have been successful in what they are trying to do, and if the prize money has been effectively used. If a team didn’t win, maybe they received some encouragement to go on and try to change the world in some other way. I feel good about how the money is being spent by SEI. Their recent activity trying to recruit Booth alumni to be on boards of nonprofits has been incredibly successful.

Philanthropy is an integral part of my identity. I don’t see it as making time for this activity. I see it as, ‘How do I incorporate this activity into everything I do?’

Liz Thompson

Hachikian: How do you make time for your causes?

Thompson: Philanthropy is an integral part of my identity. I don’t see it as making time for this activity. I see it as, “How do I incorporate this activity into everything I do?” If it is as important to you as it is to both of us, you’ll figure out ways to incorporate it. 

Hachikian: How can executives make an impact through giving back?

Edwardson: One of the things I discovered in trying to motivate employees in the corporate world was that they wanted a sense of purpose beyond increasing earnings per share. I had become active in Habitat for Humanity when it was a young organization, and I found it was an interesting way to do team building for corporations.

John EdwardsonI quickly discovered that a lot of the line workers at Ameritech knew how to hang Sheetrock or use a miter saw, while a lot of the senior people didn’t have a clue. There was a role reversal—the managed employees at the company were becoming managers at Habitat. It was a wonderful thing to watch that happen.

Hachikian: Do you have any words of wisdom for someone considering getting involved in a cause?

Thompson: No matter what you’re passionate about, just give your time. Our government cannot address all of the needs of our nation. It’s less about philanthropy and more about making sure our nation is as strong as it can be.

Edwardson: The people around you are always going to be asking, “What is he made of?” “What is important to her? Is it just her next promotion?” There is no question that you have to work hard, but people want to follow somebody for whom it is not all about them. It is important as a leader to remember that.

Thompson: And it’s bigger than yourself. I haven’t come across a person from any ethnicity, from any economic background who doesn’t feel like he or she is better at the end of that experience than at the beginning. It’s built into our human spirit. If you can plug into that, I think it will benefit you.

—Edited by LeeAnn Shelton