How Gov. Pritzker, sister Penny — billionaires both — jump-started Illinois COVID-19 relief fund

In the war against COVID-19, the Pritzkers are working the philanthropy precincts — and opening their own wallets — to address the catastrophe statewide.

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Former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker announces the launch of an Illinois coronavirus relief fund on March 26 at a briefing with her brother, Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

PBS screenshot

The mobilization to respond to the horrific coronavirus pandemic includes jump-starting philanthropy to move at warp speed, the reason Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker called his sister, Penny, a former Commerce Secretary, on the night of March 18.

Penny Pritzker was at home watching a movie with her family when her younger brother phoned. He asked her to lead a statewide drive to raise money to help nonprofits quickly provide crucial COVID-19 assistance. This would be aid outside of everything the state of Illinois government was doing.

She immediately agreed.

Six days later, the Illinois COVID-19 Response fund was announced — with a nearly $23 million startup pot of money and people who know how to get this kind of organization up and running.

That things came together so fast — and with such a hefty opening round of donations — is largely due to Penny Pritzker, who is chairing the new fund.

For decades, the Pritzker siblings — billionaires each — have been major philanthropists outside of their government, business and political portfolios.  

And in this war against COVID-19, a health and economic nightmare, Illinois has an advantage over other states in that the Pritzkers’ are working the philanthropy precincts — and opening their own wallets — to locally address this catastrophe.

J.B. donated $4 million to the Illinois fund — $2 million personal and $2 million through his and his wife’s foundation. Unannounced at the governor’s briefing last Thursday, March 26, — when the fund was unveiled — was that Penny Pritzker and her husband, Bryan Traubert, contributed $1.5 million. The family Pritzker Foundation also donated as well as another Pritzker family member, Matthew.

J.B. and Penny, through their foundations or own funds, also gave to the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund created March 17 by the Chicago Community Trust and United Way of Metro Chicago — a remarkable coming together of Chicago-based foundations.

The Chicago Sun-Times has learned that foundations related to Penny Pritzker and her husband in combination with the Pritzker Foundation contributed a total of $3.6 million to the two new charities. This includes more than $1 million to the Chicago effort. 

The newly spawned Chicago and Illinois COVID-19 funds will not overlap.

They have in common the urgent goal to get money out the door with speed given the immense need. The luxury days of time-consuming grant-making applications and review are over.

Last Tuesday, the Chicago fund announced $3.5 million in grants to 42 nonprofits. According to the MacArthur Foundation, that fund raised $13.5 million as of last week.

The first grants from the Illinois fund will be out in the coming days with a focus on organizations providing the emergency basics: food, health, shelter, safety and financial assistance.

When it comes to getting others to give, Penny Pritzker has a golden Rolodex and longstanding relations with the high-end contributors and foundations who are the rocks of Chicago’s major philanthropy community.

In the political context of giving, there would not have been an Obama presidency if not for Penny Pritzker’s fundraising abilities. She was finance chair of then-Sen. Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. The money she raised for his first quarter report was an impressive enough haul to make Obama a viable presidential candidate.

Obama tapped her to be his Commerce Secretary during his second term. After returning to Chicago, Pritzker became chair of PSP Partners, her investment firm in the Loop sweeping in the Pritzker Realty Group and other companies. Her board memberships include, among others, Microsoft and the Obama Foundation.

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, Pritzker and her husband decided to strengthen their philanthropic commitment to Chicago, pledging $100 million in the years to come.

The winner of their foundation’s Chicago Prize, a $10 million grant for West or South Side community investment, will be announced soon.

Major corporations and individuals donated to the Illinois fund just by being asked by Pritzker. No one required time-killing lengthy proposals or presentations.

The fund — whose corporate and individual donors are a who’s who of Chicago givers — is a partnership with the United Way of Illinois and the Alliance of Illinois Community Foundations.

A source told the Sun-Times the combined ComEd, Exelon Foundation and Exelon Generation donated $2 million; $1 million each came from McDonald’s, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, Caterpillar Foundation and State Farm Insurance.

The names of the founding contributors, more information, recipients and how you can donate can be found at and

No amount is too small. As Pritzker said at her brother’s briefing, “Even a dollar or $5 can make a difference in the lives of others at this horrific time.”

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