THE FIELD FOUNDATION OF ILLINOIS was established by Marshall Field III in 1940 while he was living in New York City. Grandson of the famous merchant who came to Chicago in the 1800s and established the department stores that bared the family name, Marshall Field III went into the bond business rather than the retail business. Moved by the despair created during the Great Depression, he was inspired to help those struggling with poverty and endorsed a wide range of New Deal policies, activists and progressive thinkers. Early on, the Field Foundation provided support to organizations promoting civil rights, civil liberties, child welfare and to other groups and individuals working for social change.
Assembling an impressive board of advisors that included some of the country’s leading social scientists, scholars, business leaders and judges, Field III wanted the foundation to create “a few ideas and social techniques (that may) germinate and eventually prove to be of enough value to be adopted by the community.” A passionate integrationist, he had a deep interest in matters of race and juvenile behavior. Grants were made to among others, the American Council on Race Relations, Provident Medical Associates in Chicago (assisting African American physicians acquire specialized training) and the Research Center for Human Relations in New York (which worked on racial integration in housing).
By 1949, the Foundation had assets totaling $11 million, enabling it to make approximately $150,000 a year in grants. The mainstay of its assets was the Field Building, located at 135 South LaSalle Street in Chicago. That building would eventually become a significant factor in the Foundation’s transformation.
Following Field III’s death in 1956, it was apparent that the Foundation was being pulled in different directions. At one end was his widow, Ruth Field, who wanted the Foundation to continue as an agent for social change. On the other end, Field’s son, Marshall Field IV, wanted to back away from the activist agenda and make the Foundation less national, and more Chicago-based, in its focus.
In 1960, after much negotiation, the two sides agreed to split and the Foundation was divided into two separate entities: The Field Foundation of New York, which was led by Field III’s widow, Ruth, and the Field Foundation of Illinois, led by Field’s son, Marshall Field IV. By 1989, as Ruth Field had directed, the Field Foundation of New York fully spent its assets and closed.
Marshall Field IV had a different philosophy, as he wanted the Field Foundation of Illinois to become an active member of Chicago’s philanthropic community and a key supporter of the city’s major institutions. In June 1965, just before he died, Marshall Field IV offered to contribute $8 million to the Field Foundation of Illinois if the Field Building at 135 South LaSalle St. were to be transferred at its fair market value, which then was worth $32.5 million.
Following Marshall Field IV’s death, his son, Marshall Field V, took his father’s place. The Foundation already knew it wanted to be a foundation focused on Chicago. Under the new leadership, it became a quiet but influential funder of the city’s most well-known cultural, medical and academic institutions and a Foundation that embraced the more risky grants- especially those with great potential.
Over the years, the Field Foundation has responded to the changing needs of its community, continuing to support Chicago’s institutions as well as a diverse range of community-based efforts. The Foundation has long viewed itself as a strategic supporter, rather than a long-term sustainer, of innovative programs and organizations, with a primary emphasis on underserved and disadvantaged individuals and populations. Today the Foundation makes more than $2 million in grants each year that represent a wide spectrum of organizations. A dedicated board of directors and staff support Chicago’s community, civic and cultural organizations.