Our History


Richard H. Driehaus, a Chicago native, is a fund manager and businessman. His first public philanthropic gesture was the establishment of his eponymous foundation in 1983 with an initial contribution of $1 million. Over the next four years, he made three additional contributions, totaling $2.7 million. Between 1984 and 1991, the Foundation awarded 125 grants, totaling $2.2 million, mostly to faith-based charities and social service organizations.

For its first nine years, the Foundation was unstaffed, but by 1992 the asset base (the initial $3.7 million in assets grew by 2,500 percent during the first decade) and activity (106 grants were made in 1992 alone) had expanded to a level that necessitated a formal structure. A board was formed, the first executive director was appointed, an office opened, and the number of grants and distributions increased exponentially. In the Foundation’s second decade, its asset base increased by one hundred percent, without any additional cash contributions. 

In 2000 Richard Driehaus, reflecting on nearly two decades in philanthropy, wrote, “I have devoted my professional life to the field of financial management, and have been blessed with remarkable success. I recognize, however, that the measure of one’s personal holdings is of less importance than the impact of our collective aspirations made real. I have further come to understand that maximizing the impact of donated dollars can be considerably more challenging than earning those dollars in the first place.”1

Built Environment

In 1989 the Foundation made a grant to Friends of the Parks, the first grant in the area that would become its major focus, the built environment. This was followed in the early 1990s with grants to the Friends of Lincoln Park (1989 and 1993), Landmarks Illinois (1992), Friends of the Chicago River (1995), and the National Trust for Historic Preservation (1995).

This focus reflects Richard Driehaus’s long-held belief that design plays an important role in improving the quality of life. This conviction was influenced by his childhood in the working-class neighborhood of Brainerd on Chicago’s Southwest Side, where streets lined with graceful brick bungalows embellished with art-glass windows and appropriately scaled to family life and the neighborhood contributed to a sense of place. Richard Driehaus’s interest in historic architecture, healthy communities, and the built environment in general prompted the Foundation to consider ways to strengthen neighborhoods through better design, historic preservation, and initiatives that support, preserve, and restore the sense of place. 

Establishing awards of recognition became a Foundation strategy, a means to spotlight excellence, first in the area of the built environment, and later in that of investigative journalism. The first such award was established in 1994, when the Illinois Preservation Awards program of Landmarks Illinois was rebranded The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Awards. From 1994 to 2015, 239 of these awards have been presented to 204 recipients. Buildings of all types have been honored—from hotels to private residences and apartments, parks, schools, theaters, commercial buildings, and houses of worship.

Another award created in the 1990s is The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Award for Architectural Excellence in Community Design. Established in 1997 in partnership with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, the award is intended to encourage development that respects and strengthens Chicago’s unique architectural heritage, especially in neighborhoods confronting economic and social challenges. Winners are selected by a panel of jurors whose backgrounds—either in community development or in architecture and design—provide a cross-disciplinary perspective seldom seen in architecture juries. The Award for Architectural Excellence in Community Design appears to be the only prize that recognizes the marriage of economic development and design. Project by project, the award has encouraged developers and architects not to sacrifice thoughtful design in projects when faced with budget constraints.

In 2016 the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Driehaus National Preservation Awards became the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Awards. This prize recognizes outstanding preservation on a national level, raising the visibility of historic preservation and underscoring the need to use innovative technologies to solve conservation problems. Awards honor preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and interpretation of architectural and cultural heritage.

The Foundation continues to deepen its investment in the built environment in order to ensure that urban environments are designed to meet the needs of those who inhabit them. It is committed to the idea that successful historic preservation, urban planning, and new architecture must be understood and undertaken as part of a decades-long continuum that endows a given city or town with a singular sense of place.

Funding is focused on support to organizations and projects that advocate for effective policies, and undertake urban planning and development aimed at the preservation of Chicago’s historic built fabric, protecting its parks, creating urban green spaces, and otherwise celebrate and preserving the unique character of its diverse neighborhoods.

Art and Culture

The Driehaus Foundation began to support the arts in 1992, with grants to both small and large organizations, ninety percent of which were based in Chicago. Beneficiaries that first year included Black Ensemble Theater Company, City Lit Theater Company, Court Theatre, the Goodman Theatre, Illustrated Theatre, Pegasus Players (now Pegasus Theatre Chicago), Shakespeare Repertory (now Chicago Shakespeare Theater), and Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Dance was first funded in 1994–95, with grants to Chicago Dance Coalition, Columbia College Chicago Dance Center, Chicago Music and Dance Theater, Dance Africa/Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and, in New York, Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Martha Graham Dance Company.

In the mid-1990s, the Foundation’s support accelerated, particularly in the performing arts. By the end of the decade, the Foundation was focusing on small and emerging theater and dance companies, as well as many service organizations that support the arts. Grants primarily provided general operating support without any restrictions, very rare at the time and still not common today. This approach reflects Richard Driehaus’s belief that such assistance is critical because it has the important effect of helping to stabilize an organization.

For the most part, despite their often-groundbreaking work, small entities in the arts are under-supported, even overlooked, by local philanthropy. One of the factors contributing to this situation is the risk involved in supporting such ventures. But Richard Driehaus, as an investor, is not risk-adverse; believing the downside of such investments to be minimal, he has embraced the potential of these groups for positive impact. With Driehaus grants and additional support that has materialized from other funders over the years, a number of the organizations supported by the Foundation have become a vital training ground for actors, directors, playwrights, producers, dancers, and choreographers who have assumed important roles in the performing arts—not just in Chicago but around the world.

In 2000 the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation formed a partnership to provide general operating support to Chicago’s theater and dance organizations with budgets under $150,000. At the time, Chicago had a growing number of struggling theater and dance groups that lacked both rehearsal and performance space. The funding partnership has expanded from an initial pass-through grant from MacArthur to Driehaus of $110,000, to a robust funding partnership that currently supports some 200 Chicago-based arts organizations with budgets under $500,000.

In 2016 the MacArthur and Driehaus foundations marked a milestone: total grants made through the partnership reached $20 million. Today, in addition to general operating support, the program provides current grantees with a roster of capacity-building offerings geared to meet the unique needs of small and midsize organizations, as well as professional-development grants that support artistic and managerial learning opportunities. Average annual funding for The MacArthur Funds at the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation is in excess of $2 million. 

In 2001 the Foundation established The Richard H. Driehaus Individual Artist Awards. Chicago-based artists were nominated by an anonymous panel, and final selections were made by an anonymous jury. Twenty-five artists received cash awards before the program was discontinued in 2008.

Stewardship of Chicago’s rich cultural landscape remains an ongoing commitment of the Foundation, with the majority of grants continuing to provide general operating support. The Foundation also funds organizations that cultivate a robust and diverse arts ecosystem, encouraging collaboration, advocacy, and knowledge-sharing. This includes arts service and other organizations whose core mission is to provide guidance and technical assistance to Chicago’s artists and cultural nonprofits.

Investigative Journalism

Throughout its history, The Driehaus Foundation has supported journalism in all media. The Foundation increased and focused its commitment to this area in 1997 when, in collaboration with several long-standing grantees, it created the first in a series of awards focused on investigative reporting and long-form journalism. The Foundation’s partners in this initiative include the Chicago Media Workshop’s (now Public Narrative) Studs Terkel Award (established in 1997); the Chicago Headline Club’s Watchdog Award for Excellence in Public Interest Reporting (2005); the Third Coast International Audio Festival’s Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition (2005); and the Better Government Association’s Richard H. Driehaus Award for Investigative Reporting (2010).

Economic Opportunity

Over the years, the Economic Opportunity for the Working Poor program has concentrated on public policy and advocacy as a means to improve the lives of Chicago’s economically disadvantaged. Early partners in this area were the McDermott Center (1986), Guest House (1987), Opportunity International (1990), Inspiration Corporation (1992), Deborah’s Place (1993), and the Chicago Foundation for Women (1995). Today funding focuses on organizations and initiatives that remove obstacles, protect current assets and the ability to build future wealth, and work to change systems that affect working people who remain poor.


The Foundation continues to fund programs that work to change systems that affect people who are poor. It is one of the few philanthropies working to support efforts to improve urban life, with a particular focus on historic preservation and policy. It is one of a handful of foundations in Chicago that consistently supports the general operating budgets of small arts and culture organizations. In the area of investigative journalism, its goal continues to be to encourage reporting that fosters greater accountability and effectiveness in government institutions at the local level.

The Foundation remains committed to enriching the lives of all Chicagoans by improving the built environment, enhancing arts and culture, strengthening democracy, and advancing economic opportunity through vital and powerful partnerships, because it recognizes that it can only fulfill its mission in consort with the organizations that it supports.