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Liz Lefkofsky: “Everyone can and should participate in helping others”

Everyone can and should participate in helping others. Rich people don’t have a monopoly on philanthropy. Anyone can help anyone, and sometimes the smallest acts of kindness make the greatest difference. Liz Lefkofsky is a social philanthropist committed to championing initiatives that enhance the quality of human life. Liz got her start in philanthropy as […]

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Everyone can and should participate in helping others. Rich people don’t have a monopoly on philanthropy. Anyone can help anyone, and sometimes the smallest acts of kindness make the greatest difference.


Liz Lefkofsky is a social philanthropist committed to championing initiatives that enhance the quality of human life. Liz got her start in philanthropy as a young child when helping her mother stuff envelopes in support of the American Brain Tumor Association, which her mother founded. She went on to work at the Printer’s Row Book Fair and Gallery 37, now known as After School Matters. Today, as the executive director of the Lefkofsky Family Foundation, Liz advances high-impact programs, initiatives and research in the areas of education, women’s health, medical research and the arts. Liz has spearheaded a unique partnership between Chicago Public Schools, the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute and the Academy for Urban School Leadership to create a performance-enhancing curriculum for students and online tools for them to select their best high school, a program which is rolling out districtwide. Liz and her husband Eric Lefkofsky established the Foundation in 2006 and became signees of the Giving Pledge in 2013. Liz serves as a board member for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Ravinia Festival and Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL).


Thank you so much for doing this with us Liz! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in a suburb of Chicago and had a fairly typical childhood until something terrible happened. My older sister was diagnosed with a brain tumor at 5 years old. I mention this because it’s a very big part of who I am today and the work I do. After my sister got sick, my mom started the American Brain Tumor Association (ABTA). There was no internet back then and so it was very hard to find information. They hired an oncology nurse, and she literally sat with a rotary phone in my grandmother’s basement answering questions for patients and family members who dialed in using an 800 #. I think that was the beginning of my journey into not-for-profit work. I’m proud to say the ABTA is still around today and gives away several million dollars in research grants annually and is still one of the best resources for patients and families battling brain tumors.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I don’t really have a favorite book, but I’m an avid reader. It really depends on what I’m in the mood for. These days, the lighter the better….

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“Tomorrow is not promised, it’s what we do today that matters.”

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

Today, I serve as the executive director of our family foundation, the Lefkofsky Family Foundation, to advance high-impact programs, initiatives and research in the areas of education, women’s health, medical research and the arts.

Our foundation has a number of programs that we support and fund, but one in particular that we’ve really been focusing on lately is something called the VING Project: a national movement sparking the next generation of givers. Through VING, teens have an opportunity to give an individual in need an encouraging boost by surprising them with 1,000 dollars.

To date, the VING project has awarded submissions to more than 300 teens. As people around the world face an unprecedented hardship amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, the project is hoping to increase its charitable giving efforts by 100% in the next 30 days. By the end of the year, VING hopes to have donated 500,000 dollars to people in need.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. We just don’t get up and do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

My husband and I created the VING project in 2014 as part of our bigger mission to give back, celebrate teens, and spark the next generation of giving.

I would say the “Aha moment” so to speak occurred this past March when we looked at what was happening across the country and realized that this was our chance to reach people who really need it. I’ve always been cautious about putting my name front and center because that’s not the point of what we do, but we took a step back and realized it might help spread the message further, we knew this was our moment to come forward.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

There are so many people that have been impacted by VING. Especially now, we’re getting so many amazing responses from teens nominating someone in their life. A lot of our recipients are hardworking adults that have been laid off due to covid-19 and struggling to make ends meet. It gives me such a good feeling at the end of the day to know that we’re helping so many people and, perhaps more importantly, that we’re giving teens a memorable experience that will stick with them for years to come.

Are there three things that the community can do to help you in your great work?

1. Get involved. Volunteer in a soup kitchen, hold babies in the hospital, shovel snow for an elderly neighbor. Regardless of what it is, you can’t make change from the sideline.

2. Small moves matter. You can’t solve all the world’s problems all at once but you can take baby steps in the right direction every day.

3. Finally, as it relates to VING, please spread the word! We all know someone who could use a boost right now…maybe you have children, maybe you’re a teacher — please, share this opportunity — we all know someone who could use a little positive encouragement right now!

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

These days I think it’s less about “I wish someone had told me” and more about the truth in all things we hear all the time. For example, people always say “time goes fast, you have to enjoy it” or “don’t worry, it will all work out.” These little life lessons or clichés are really hard to take in and absorb, but often so true.

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious during this tumultuous time? Can you explain?

We are all feeling anxious during this time. I am deeply worried about our mental health in addition to our physical health during this pandemic. To address this, I have found a few online classes that are free that have been super helpful while sheltering at home. For example: a Happiness class from Yale on Coursera, free yoga from Shakti Aspen and I’m reading a book about inner peace called “Creating True Peace” by Thich Nhat Hanh. I’m also taking long walks by myself (actually with my dog Ozzie) and watching a lot of light, funny movies from the 80s with my family.

We have to remember that we will get through this. We have to show our gratitude to one another. Smile from behind your mask, thank everyone who you come across. Be patient even when your patience is at its end. We are all in this together and we have to try and respect one another, as none of us are to blame right now.

And maybe most importantly we have to have a little empathy. No matter how hard you have it, there is almost always someone who is suffering even more. We started VING as a result of that, and we wanted a way to let people who don’t normally get to lift one another up, help out by becoming mini philanthropists. At VING, we don’t give money away — we give money to kids and let them give it away, and we believe that is what we all need now more than ever.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Everyone can and should participate in helping others. Rich people don’t have a monopoly on philanthropy. Anyone can help anyone, and sometimes the smallest acts of kindness make the greatest difference.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I love this question because it’s really the essence of why we started VING in the first place. We wanted to inspire a generation of givers by empowering teens to support their neighbors and local organizations that are solving problems in their communities. It’s through these simple acts of giving that Generation Z will change the world.

Ving is for everyone to share. It doesn’t have to be 1000 dollars it can be 1.00 dollars, a smile, or dropping off a bag of groceries. Ving is giVING, belieVING, receiVING… a viral feeling that comes from doing something good without expecting anything back in return. It’s that little something we can all do everyday!!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

If I could meet one person for a cup of coffee (I love coffee) it would be Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I am so inspired by her perseverance.

How can our readers follow you online?

That would be great! Check out vingproject.org and lff.com for more information on all these initiatives.

For VING, we’re on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @vingproject.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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