Investing in the future of the Great Lakes Region.

The Long Game

As Joyce celebrated its 75th year in 2023, taking stock of its accomplishments, occasional setbacks, and ongoing challenges. The Foundation hopes to highlight lessons learned along its three-quarters-of-a-century journey – from a timber heiress’ first charitable giving in post-World War II America, to the role Joyce now plays as a $1 billion philanthropy focused on advancing racial equity and economic mobility for the Great Lakes’ next generations.

Through more than two dozen interviews with philanthropy leaders, current and former Foundation leaders, program officers, grantees, and other partners this project illustrates Joyce’s distinct philosophy of work, shaped by decades of grant making on some of society’s most intractable problems.

The project, penned by Pulitzer Prize winning writer Ted Gregory, is the latest chapter in the continuing story of Joyce’s work. Learn more about the Foundation’s origin story, the threads that have connected the work over the decades and that inform the work ahead.

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"Joyce takes the long view when addressing complex social challenges. I believe that's the highest and best use of our resources. We can be the venture capital of the social sector, and we should be comfortable taking well-considered risks when investing in potential solutions. At the same time it is important to listen to signals that new approaches are necessary, including being open to new ideas and including a wide range of voices. This is the story of the Joyce Foundation: searching for solutions, building the evidence-base to support wise investments, and advocating forcefully for the ideas we and our grantee partners believe in." -Ellen Alberding, CEO & President


Re-defining culture: Pivoting to The Joyce Awards

Re-defining culture: Pivoting to The Joyce Awards

In the beginning, Joyce’s Culture program might have been considered just a legacy interest, dating back to founder Beatrice Joyce Kean writing checks in the 1970s to the Art Institute, Lyric Opera, Field Museum, and other major Chicago cultural institutions. But after years of focusing on those legacy institutions, Joyce announced in 1992 a new, more comprehensive approach that would acknowledge the arts as critical anchors in the health and well-being of their communities.

The Foundation began supporting small and mid-sized arts organizations based in communities of color, connecting legacy institutions to new audiences and new partnerships through artists and arts organizations of color, and encouraging institutional commitment to diversity at all levels of planning and implementation.

That shift ultimately led to the creation in 2004 of the Joyce Awards, a unique and coveted recognition that pairs artists of color and arts organizations throughout the Great Lakes region every year in producing new works, often raising their profile to a national level and deepening connections with diverse communities. The Joyce Awards are one of the earliest recognitions of its kind—a sizable financial investment in artists that changed how other foundations thought about and behaved toward arts and culture.

Learn more about the evolution of Joyce’s Culture Program.
“I think what makes Joyce’s Culture program unique is its long history of building trust and relationships with those on the ground who are thinking deeply about the intersectionality of issues that impact communities of color,” – Angelique Power, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, and a former Culture program director at Joyce.


has been awarded by the Joyce Foundation to commission new works by artists of color.


new collaborations between artists and leading arts, cultural, and community-based organizations in six Great Lakes cities.


Joyce Awards winners have gone on to win Grammy Awards.


Joyce Awards winners have gone on to win United States Artists Fellowships.


Democracy amid a pandemic and political violence

Democracy amid a pandemic and political violence

Confronting emerging issues, leveraging collaboration, and breaking through silos have been the hallmarks of Joyce’s Democracy Program since it began in 1982 – with an early focus on voter registration and education, good government issues and supporting citizen watchdog groups.

Today, the Democracy Program is focused on assuring participation and representation of all people who call the Great Lakes home. That includes investing in policies to protect and strengthen voting rights and elections, fair representation, and strengthening the decennial census process.

But the program has pivoted several times along the way to confront timely issues. One recent example is a unique and innovative pilot focused on reducing political violence throughout the Great Lakes region by getting ahead of it.

Learn more about the evolution of Joyce’s Democracy Program.
“The most important Joyce lesson, I believe, is standing for the idea that change requires long-term investment and not being intoxicated by the newest, shiniest object. Foundations like Joyce that stick to their knitting—which is the fundamental work of justice in America—are beacons.” – Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation

Education & Economic Mobility

Decades in the classroom: Following the evidence

Joyce’s focus on education and providing a better future for the next generation in the Great Lakes has its roots in founder Beatrice Joyce Kean’s interest in the children of employees of her family’s lumber enterprise. Before she died in the 1970s, she had paid for them to attend college.

By the mid-1980s, Joyce had formally committed to a full grant making program focused on policy, research, and reform in education. The approach manifested itself in investments in Chicago school reform and briefly in early childhood education, before evolving into its current focus on effective educators, smooth pathways from high school into college and careers, and post-secondary success.

Following the evidence. Being nimble and opportunistic where the evidence shows promise.

Those are the hallmarks of the Joyce Foundation’s thought leadership and grant making in education and economic mobility over the decades. Focused on improving prospects for children of color and from marginalized communities, Joyce has stayed the course on one of the nation’s most persistent challenges, helping to build broad coalitions and to lay the necessary groundwork for policy reforms.

Learn more about the evolution of Joyce’s Education & Economic Mobility Program.
“I give Joyce a lot of credit. They were way ahead of the curve on statewide education policy, and they not only led the way, but have really pulled a lot of people along with them and done so consistently over many years. I hope they continue to stay the course!” – Robin Steans, president of Advance Illinois.


Partnering in Great Lakes protections

At its roots, Joyce’s dedication to helping restore the Great Lakes is an extrapolated best guess based on the Foundation’s founder Beatrice Joyce Kean’s love of nature. Keying on what they believed would be her wishes, past Foundation leaders listed conservation among its earliest grantmaking guidelines in 1977.

Over the next four-plus decades, the Foundation built regional partnerships among institutions, researchers, environmental advocates, and funders in the Great Lakes states to take on complex issues such as pollution, invasive species, affordable and equitable access to drinking water, and climate change. It supported scientific and policy research and funded—and in some cases created—groups to do the crucial work.

Joyce has been among many leaders of that movement to protect the Great Lakes, credited for its long view and for supporting strategic advocacy over time. More recently, Joyce joined others in expanding its approach to focus on assuring equitable and affordable access to drinking water throughout the region, especially in communities of color whose needs and hardships were previously neglected.

Learn more about the evolution of Joyce’s Environment Program
“The tools and the policies and the specific movements have shifted, but Joyce maintains that clear focus on the understanding that this is a special place, and we’re going to do this work because it is research-based, and enhances this place, and improves the lives of people.” – Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance of the Great Lakes

Gun Violence Prevention & Justice Reform

Gun violence prevention: “Worth the risks”

In the face of opposition and little company among fellow funders, Joyce launched a gun violence prevention program in 1993 that framed the issue as a public health threat that could be addressed with an evidence-based response. For more than 30 years, the Foundation has remained steady in its support of gun violence prevention, as the nature of the crisis has made both measuring success difficult and staying the course vital.

The foundation has been a leader in philanthropy in funding gun violence prevention research that has produced scores of seminal findings that guide the field today. This support has also helped to build and develop the field of gun violence prevention researchers. In recent years, the gun violence prevention program expanded to include criminal justice reform and community violence intervention as key pillars in achieving public safety in our communities.

Learn more about the evolution of Joyce’s Gun Violence Prevention & Justice Reform Program.
“There have been plenty of times when Joyce could have said, ‘Oh my God, the forces against this issue are just too strong, and our potential for impact is so narrow and our allies are so timid, there’s an opportunity cost for this focus. But I think that adherence to the deep value and ethics that surrounds Joyce’s focus on this issue is stronger than that. You really have to respect them for staying the course, in an incredible leadership way, on an issue that defines the polarization in our society,” – Julia Stasch, former president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.


Storytelling and journalism in support of good policy

For most of its first seven decades, Joyce was most comfortable working behind the scenes, largely avoiding drawing attention to its work. In 2018, the Foundation adopted a new approach - one that viewed storytelling and the capacity to communicate as tools to elevate grantees’ work.

At the same time, Joyce made another forward-looking strategic shift, becoming more intentional about supporting independent, high-quality journalism as the news media and public affairs reporting continues to shrink across the region.

A result of these shifts was the launch of Joyce’s newest program, Journalism, in 2021, with the goal of deepening the Foundation’s investments in the space.

Learn more about the evolution of Joyce’s Journalism Program.

Lend A Hand Fund

The Lend A Hand Fund provides support to BIPOC-led-and-serving community organizations working to help Chicago residents hardest hit by the impacts of systemic racism. The Fund was established in the Summer of 2020, in response to the uprising in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd and the impact it had on Chicago communities already reeling from the effects of COVID. The Fund began as a rapid-response initiative and has evolved to provide support for ongoing recovery efforts, such as housing, mental health, and food insecurity. Learn more about the Lend a Hand Fund.

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