When the stage lights go up on Hubbard Street Dance Company’s performance of a new work by international choreography phenom Crystal Pite this December, the tall, slender blonde watching with complete focus will be Liza Yntema. “When I watch a dance performance of this caliber, it’s a full body experience for me,” says Yntema, “and I can’t see or hear anything else. It really does take my breath away.”
But even if she wasn’t a synesthete when watching dance, Yntema’s intense reaction would be understandable given the fact that Yntema’s and her husband Mark Ferguson’s fundraising and philanthropic planning are what made Hubbard Street’s 40th Anniversary Winter Series, and many other female-choreographed productions before it, possible.
Strategic, entrepreneurial philanthropy: It takes time, patience and the ability to rev things up and launch them, over and over again. “It’s like being a venture capital investor,” says Yntema. “You hone in on the causes that you connect with the most and then within those arenas, put all of your energy, support and skill behind new projects. Not all projects will work. But when they do, it’s a thrill, you learn a ton, hopefully create a positive change, and then move on to the next effort while staying connected to the contacts and friends you have made.”
As a couple, Yntema and Ferguson have spent the last 20 years developing this philosophy in support of numerous projects with Chicago area organizations. Working together, they have created a philanthropic portfolio that they research and evaluate as seriously as their financial investments. “From established cultural institutions like the Lyric Opera, to venerable social service providers like Youth Guidance, to Springboard Foundation and the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, Mark and I look at how we can serve as change agents, instead of simply writing a check,” says Yntema.
Ferguson is on the Medill School of Journalism Advisory Council as well as the Executive Committee of the Daniel Murphy Scholarship Fund. Four years ago, Ferguson and Yntema launched a one of a kind initiative at Holy Trinity High School to fund college visits for underprivileged students, which they have now turned over to a new donor. Believing strongly in the power of athletics to transform girls’ lives, Yntema created and funded the girls’ crew program there, starting in 2015.
In fact, Yntema’s most passionate support has been behind programs that give women and youth opportunities they might not have had, through long-term commitments to gender equality in dance and athletics, bridging organizations such as the Chicago Park District, the Joffrey Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Company, the Harris Theater and Holy Trinity High School. Yntema also launched her own innovative open source online research platform, The Dance Data Project, which looks at major ballet-based companies and tracks their record of hiring women for leadership positions, the number of works commissioned by women, as well as the number of times those works are performed.
Trained as a dancer before law school, Yntema was raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her father was a mathematician in the experimental psychology departments at MIT and Harvard and her mother was an editor for Atlantic Monthly/Little Brown who made a pitch to be publisher for the company at a time when that was unheard of. “I definitely descended from a line of powerful women!” says Yntema. Her grandmother Jean Busey, one of only two female chemistry majors graduated from the University of Illinois in 1920, was an environmental and racial equality activist as well as a suffragette. And Yntema’s Great Great Aunt Kiz first co-founded a school for girls in Nevada and then helped start the University of Nevada. “Looking at the women in my family line, I have often thought, they did so much—imagine what they could have done if there had not been all of these restrictions on women,” says Yntema. “It really lit a fire under me to try to make a difference for women in my time through philanthropic efforts—to give them opportunities they might not otherwise have.”
Moving to Chicago in 1984 after they finished law school at the University of Michigan, Yntema and Ferguson’s first big gift was an unusual—but as it turns out, symbolically meaningful base for much that has followed. “The first big gift we gave was a floor,” she laughs. “A new floor for a small dance company. With my background in dance and my husband’s experience playing basketball, we both knew how important the floor is to both athletes and dancers. Without the right underpinning, you can’t dance or jump or perform to your fullest potential. It was such a tangible way to start,” she muses. “It still gives us pleasure thinking about it.”
In the years that followed, Yntema immersed herself in the Chicago philanthropic community, learning all she could from others in the community, chairing committees and building on what she learned. “I’m a big believer in working your way up,” says Yntema, “There is so much to know and learn from others who came before you. When I arrived in Chicago, I literally knew no one but my husband. My mother suggested the Junior League as a way to meet other women and become involved. Most of my dearest friendships in Chicago were developed through the League. And now, when I look around a room of dynamic women leaders in philanthropy, I see at least a dozen women I worked with 30 years ago.”
Both Yntema and Ferguson stress that the Chicago philanthropic community is unusual in its openness and generosity. “It’s like the Silicon Valley of charity work: You have an idea, you can run with it and almost everyone is encouraging and supportive of innovative ideas—my husband and I have received immense support for our work to promote female choreographers and starting a first ever college visit program that ensures inner-city Holy Trinity kids see the campuses and are trained to excel at the schools to which they are accepted.”
Says Yntema: “Just as there is a massive underrepresentation of female filmmakers in Hollywood, in dance there is a shameful absence of women who are given an opportunity to choreograph for larger ballet companies.” To change this in the Chicago market, Yntema and Ferguson encouraged Joffrey Artistic Director Ashley Wheater to commission and stage more works by women, underwriting Mammatus by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa in 2015, as well as Stephanie Martinez’s work at the Joffrey 2017 Gala. At Hubbard Street Dance Company, the couple has donated over $200,000 toward the development of choreography by women, sponsoring Robyn Mineko Williams Cloudline at the New Works Festival in May, Penny Saunders’ Out of Keeping Winter Series in December 2016, and the upcoming all-Pite program in December 2017.
“All of this has been incredibly encouraging,” says Yntema. “I was always taught, ‘the more fortunate you are, the more you must give back.’ But what I didn’t anticipate was the joy, fun and satisfaction.”
As for advice to offer others new to philanthropy? “Work with those whose character you admire and who are generous with their time and wisdom,” says Yntema. “Ask a lot of questions. When invited to join a Board or become involved, consider what new skills you can acquire—whether it’s strategic planning, or becoming stronger at assessing budgets and the feasibility of new initiatives.” And above all, Yntema exhorts, “Women make the majority of philanthropic decisions. Use your power to build something enduring—be realistic but be ambitious.”