How Obama Center mega donors are using their naming rights

Places in the Obama Center will be named for Harold Washington, Timuel Black, Elie Wiesel, Mae Jemison, Eleanor Roosevelt and more.

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Former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama participate in the Obama Presidential Center ceremonial groundbreaking in Jackson Park on the South Side, Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 28, 2021.

Former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama participate in the Obama Presidential Center ceremonial groundbreaking in Jackson Park on the South Side, Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 28, 2021.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

WASHINGTON — For the first time, the Obama Foundation released a list of its super megadonors — 11 gifts of $25 million or more — while also on Thursday announcing how top donors will be using their naming rights to honor others.

Last month, the foundation disclosed that Jeff Bezos, one of the richest people in the world, is donating $100 million, its biggest individual contribution to date.

In keeping with a new approach the Obama Foundation is staking out in naming rights — using the money to throw a spotlight on a notable person other than the donor — Bezos asked that the plaza in the Obama Presidential Center be named for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the civil rights icon who died in 2020.

The Sun-Times has learned that a minimum gift of $5 million is needed to obtain naming rights of significant parts of the center complex, under construction in Jackson Park.

On Thursday, the foundation announced:

* Obama Foundation board member and foundation finance chair Michael Sacks, the CEO of GCM Grosvenor, and his wife, Cari Sacks, will name an exhibit on “civic education and empowerment” after Timuel Black, the Chicago historian and civil rights activist who died Oct. 13 at the age of 102. Michael Sacks is an investor in the Chicago Sun-Times. Their family foundation donated between $10 million and $24.99 million — the Obama foundation only revealed the broad range.

* Foundation board member Penny Pritzker — a former Commerce Secretary under ex-President Barack Obama — and her husband, Bryan Traubert, will name the auditorium in the center in honor of Holocaust survivor, author and political activist Elie Wiesel. Their foundation donated at least $25 million.

* Foundation board member Connie Ballmer and her husband, Steven Ballmer, the former Microsoft CEO — they are $25 million-plus donors — will name the fruit and vegetable garden at the center in honor of Eleanor Roosevelt, the former first lady. Their gift salutes Roosevelt’s first Victory Garden at the White House and former first lady Michelle Obama’s garden on the South Lawn, which she used to highlight her healthy eating campaigns.

* Mellody Hobson and her husband, George Lucas, the Hollywood director, will name museum exhibits on Level 3 of the tower building after board member John Rogers Jr., a close friend of the Obamas and the founder of Ariel Investments, the oldest Black-owned mutual fund firm in the U.S. Hobson is Ariel’s co-CEO and president. Their Hobson/Lucas foundation donated at least $25 million.

* Exelon Corp., headquartered in Chicago, which donated between $10 million and $24.99 million, will name the museum exhibit about “changemakers for collective action” after astronaut Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to travel into space.

* Alphawood Foundation and Newsweb Corp. founder Fred Eychaner will use an overlook in the museum building three-story atrium to honor Mayor Harold Washington. Eychaner and his foundation contributed $10 million.

The other $25 million-plus donors as individuals or through their foundations are:

* Lynne Benioff and her husband, Marc, the CEO of

* Ann Doerr and her husband, John, a former Obama Foundation board member whose venture capital investments have included Amazon and Google.

* Vice chair of the Obama Foundation Board Glenn Hutchins, the co-founder of Silver Lake investments and part of the Boston Celtics ownership group.

* Board member Sean Parker, the co-founder of Napster who partnered with Mark Zuckerberg to found Facebook in 2004.

* Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos.

* The Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

A few other top donors, either individual or through their foundations:

Between $10 million and $24,999,999

*Chicago-based Boeing Co.

*Bulls great Michael Jordan.

*John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

*Rika Mansueto and husband Joe, Morningstar founder and Chicago Fire owner.

*George Soros’ Open Society Foundation.

* Oprah Winfrey,  a close friend of the Obamas and one of the most successful entertainment executives in the world.

* Shonda Rhimes, creator of “Grey’s Anatomy.”

* Steven Spielberg, Hollywood director, and actress Kate Capshaw.

Between $5 million and $9,999,999

*The foundation controlled by Aliko Dangote, a Nigerian Forbes said was “Africa’s richest man.”

*Philanthropists Judy and Peter Kovler.

*Philanthropist and Chicago civic activist Joan Harris.

*Chicago-based McDonald’s.

*The Crown Family, one of the richest in the nation, with deep roots in Chicago.

Between $1 million and $4,999,999

*The Obamas

*Jane Clark and Robert Clark, founder of Clayco Construction.

*Ken Griffin, the Chicago business mogul who is one of the richest men in the nation and a Republican megadonor.

*The Polk Bros. Foundation.

*John Rogers and his daughter, Victoria.

*Mary Zients and her husband, Jeffrey, currently the Biden White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator.

The foundation also, for the first time, made public the names of its regional network of fundraising “bundlers” — in Chicago, northern and southern California and Texas — people who tap into their networks to raise money.

The Chicago Campaign Committee co-chairs are Hobson; Obama Foundation President Valerie Jarrett; James Crown; and Frederick Waddell, the retired Northern Trust Corp. CEO.

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