On June 8, 2016, Lake Forest resident and author Don Cooke is being honored by Forefront, an organization previously known as Donors Forum, at its annual luncheon to be held at the Hyatt Regency Chicago. Forefront’s mission statement includes building “a vibrant social impact sector for all the people of Illinois,” and Mr. Cooke, the McCormick Foundation’s Senior Vice President for Philanthropy, is a fitting honoree. Along with Mr. Cooke, lauded musician Yo-Yo Ma, will give a presentation on the subject of professional revinventions. I spoke with Mr. Cooke about his career, his forthcoming honor and life in Lake Forest.
Gregg Shapiro: Don, what can you tell me about your title and what is involved with being Senior Vice President for Philanthropy at the McCormick Foundation where you’ve been for 11 years?
Don Cooke: I have the great privilege of working with a very talented staff and an engaged Board of Directors as stewards of the amazing legacy of Robert R. McCormick, editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune for over four decades. It allows me to be a partner with all sorts of dedicated people in our community and across the country who are committed to helping those most in need. I continually learn about all sorts of issues, challenges, and solutions, and the McCormick Foundation does its part to help. We work in early childhood education, democracy, veterans’ issues, and basic human needs (such as homelessness, hunger, domestic abuse, etc.). No two days are the same, except for consistent dedication and hard work by so many people doing the work, week in and week out in our communities.
GS: You were educated at Williams College and Harvard University, where you studied astrophysics. How did you get from astrophysics to philanthropy?
DC: Well, there actually was a straight line from then to now. After some years in research, I joined the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia in 1981 as Director of the Fels Planetarium, where I could share astronomy with hundreds of thousands of people – including students. This is the second oldest planetarium in the United States behind Chicago’s own Adler Planetarium. From there I got into fundraising and marketing for the museum. I jumped to the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1992 to oversee fundraising and marketing, public relations, where I helped build a magnificent new concert hall. Loving museums the way I do (I have visited 382 museums around the world), I came to the fabulous Field Museum in Chicago in 2000 where I continued fundraising and public relations. That was where I met the McCormick Foundation leadership, who took me on in 2005. See? Very linear [laughs].
GS: In addition to being with the McCormick Foundation, you are the Board of Directors Chair at Forefront. What can you tell me about Forefront, including the recent name change from Donors Forum to Forefront?
DC: We had all known for a long time that Donors Forum was not the right name for this organization. Forefront is a unique partnership among funders, operating non-profits and government agencies, so it has never been all about donors alone. The name change came about as part of increasing the organization’s relevance and completely overhauling what the organization stands for and does. This rejuvenation includes becoming the learning, sharing, and coordinating hub for the nonprofit sector in Illinois in a variety of key areas, including social impact investing and advocacy for the sector. Forefront has been supporting the nonprofits in our state during this cataclysmic budget impasse that is hurting so many people. It is doing this through organizing our colleagues around solutions and being the voice of the sector.
GS: What was the impetus for you to become involved with Forefront?
DC: I joined the Board several years ago because I believe that its role has been to lift all the nonprofits and grant-makers as a group so our work individually is more impactful. Forefront’s effectiveness with this mission continues to grow every day.
GS: You are being honored at the June 8 Forefront luncheon. What does such a distinction mean to you?
DC: This is really very special, mostly because there are so many people beyond me who actively engaged with Forefront. No one of us and no one institution can do this work alone. We all need to learn together, collaborate, and share what works and doesn’t work so that we can be more effective and help the people most in need. So, to be singled out is very nice, but probably a bit unreasonable given the collaborative nature of our work.
GS: You will be joined at the Forefront luncheon by your friend, legendary musician Yo-Yo Ma. How did the two of you become friends?
DC: I met Yo-Yo in 1992, my first year with the Philadelphia Orchestra. And I guess we hit it off. He visited as a guest artist regularly, so we worked together on a variety of programs in Philadelphia, and we kept getting together once I moved to Chicago.
GS: You will both be giving a presentation about professional “reinventions.” How was that subject chosen as the focus of the presentation?
DC: Re-inventions, thinking outside the box, taking risks – these are all things Yo-Yo has done in his career and his life, and they are critical elements of success for funders and nonprofits alike. So this seemed like a great time to link his amazing experience to ours and hope some of his experience rubs off on all us.
GS: As a Philadelphia native, how does Chicago compare to your hometown?
DC: Philadelphia is terrific – great arts and culture, great restaurants, and right in the middle of New York City and Washington DC. But Chicago is truly amazing, and all of my friends and family love to visit. We have it all here plus the lake. I have especially loved the civic pride and leadership in this city. Everyone cares about making things better, and it is so lovely that some of our great families are still active in leadership and transformation of the region. But it is even better that you can be involved if you are not a member of one those families. You are welcome as long as you simply get involved and work hard.
GS: How long have you and your wife Sally lived in Lake Forest?
DC: We moved to Lake Forest when we first moved here 16 years ago.
GS: What do you like best about living in Lake Forest?
DC: Lake Forest is a terrific community with a beautiful downtown, wonderful festivals and celebrations, and an amazing lakefront, and we have watched the neighborhood kids grow up over the past 16 years. We are fortunate, however, that our kids and grandkids live in the Chicago region and haven’t scattered to the four corners of the earth as have many families. I have a bit of a long commute, though [laughs].
GS: You served as the chairman of the City of Lake Forest Historic Preservation Commission – what was involved with that?
DC: This was a very interesting job. The Commission’s role as a committee of volunteers is to oversee the ongoing implementation of the historic preservation ordinance adopted several years ago in Lake Forest. We reviewed, commented on, and usually approved a variety of architectural additions, changes, and improvements to properties in the two designated historic districts (one along the lake, and the other along Green Bay Road). I want to stress the word “volunteer.” The Commission spent a lot of time studying and reviewing petitions, including the once-per-month public hearings where the petitions were presented. My job was to keep things moving, be sure all petitions were heard and acted upon, and ensure that the commissioners were all involved and weighed in on each project. The City of Lake Forest staff did a great job organizing and keeping projects flowing through the Commission.
This story was originally published in The North Shore Weekend Newspaper