Profiles of Arts Grantmakers

Sara Lee Corporation - Nobody Doesn't Like Sara Lee

Suzanne Sato

"The arts enrich society in so many ways.
They are a civilizing force — as essential
over time as adequate housing or a cleaner
environment or other compelling causes.
Art is surely the grandest expression of our
creativity and is our most lasting legacy.
People are transient. But art is forever.”

- John H. Bryan

If “the past is prologue” then the history of Sara Lee Corporation bears telling. It is a testament to corporate leadership over the years and the impact of Sara Lee's CEOs, past and present, not only on a company, but on the city of Chicago.

Sara Lee's Web site tells a comprehensive story of the Sara Lee Foundation's goals and giving, highlighting many of the grantees that the Foundation has been proud to support. Rather than rely only on the Web, however, it seemed best to spend time with Robin S. Tryloff, newly named president of the Sara Lee Foundation, developing a better understanding of the why and how of Sara Lee's commitment to philanthropy in general, and the arts in particular.

In 1939 the noted corporate entrepreneur and philanthropist Nathan Cummings bought C.D. Kenny, a Baltimore-based sugar, coffee, and tea company, launching a strategy of acquisitions and consolidations that built the company we know today as Sara Lee Corporation. In 1985, dozens of acquisitions and four name changes later, Sara Lee Corporation became the official name of a company that had grown into a global consumer packaged goods company that markets its products in more than 180 countries and generates approximately $18 billion in annual revenues. Today, Sara Lee Corporation has leading positions in packaged meats, fresh bread, shoe care, coffee, hosiery, and underwear and bras, including brands such as Sara Lee, Earth Grains, Douwe Egberts, Jimmy Dean, Chock full o' Nuts, Kiwi, Hanes, Bali, Dim, Ambi-Pur, Sanex, and Playtex.

In spite of its size, Sara Lee's past unfolds like a family story, led in the first sixty-one years by only two CEOs, with its third, C. Steven McMillan, appointed in July 2000. From the beginning Nathan Cummings believed in giving back to the community, and considered building and sustaining cultural institutions to be not only a responsibility, but also a passion. He was an avid art collector with an impressive collection, and his dedication to the arts was deep and unwavering on a personal and corporate level. In 1968, what was then Consolidated Foods acquired Bryan Foods, Inc. Identifying a kindred spirit in John H. Bryan, Cummings spent the next few years preparing Bryan for succession, sharing with him not only his corporate experience but also an understanding of philanthropy and a love of the arts. Cummings was interested not only in promoting business success, but also in the total citizen leader. He believed that the mature corporate citizen must also be deeply committed to the cultural life of the community. When talking about the importance of the arts, Bryan often cited a business trip to London when Cummings introduced him to sculptor Henry Moore; Bryan considered it a defining moment when he fully embraced the importance of creativity and the value of the arts as intrinsic to success.

In twenty-five years as Sara Lee's CEO, John Bryan's personal and corporate values were thoroughly mirrored by Sara Lee Corporation, and he used his position to promote the importance of the arts both in Chicago and across the country. At the time of his retirement as CEO, he served on no fewer that fifty-eight boards and advisory committees, including chairing the Business Committee for the Arts. He is a powerful fundraiser in Chicago and leveraged millions of dollars from his fellow corporate leaders, including the ongoing and monumental Millennium Park project, with a goal of $350 million still to be completed. Sara Lee's leadership in support of the arts earned the corporation the National Medal of Arts in 1998, one of only six corporations to be so honored since the inception of the awards in 1985.

Even in its corporate art collection, Sara Lee demonstrated its close tie to Cummings and Bryan and an ultimate concern for the community. Bryan collected the fifty-two pieces in the acclaimed collection in an attempt to reassemble Cummings' original holdings, some of which had been dispersed over the years into private hands. His goal in reacquiring the works was to ensure that they would ultimately be accessible to the public. Shortly before he retired from Sara Lee and following intensive consultation with experienced curators, Bryan and the corporation announced that Sara Lee would donate the fifty-two pieces to forty public museums around the world. In general, one work of art was donated to each of the museums, with the notable exception of the Art Institute of Chicago which received twelve. This long-range investment with an eye to returning the work to the public was very much in keeping with a man interested not only in the value of an asset but in a long-term reinvestment in the public good.

Recently appointed chairman and CEO C. Steven McMillan also enjoys a long history with the company, beginning his tenure in 1976, and serving on the company's board since 1993. His service on the boards of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago and Chicago Symphony Orchestra continues the tradition of commitment to the arts. Not only does Sara Lee give generously, at least 2 percent of its U.S. pretax income which puts it near the top of major corporations while the national average is .7 percent, but it has remained close to its core competencies: the arts and community initiatives (initiatives which address hunger and homelessness, job skills, and developing the full potential of women in society).

Over the twenty years of the life of the formally constituted Sara Lee Foundation, Sara Lee has been generous with its cash, and more locally, with product donations that double the value of its philanthropy. At the same time, the corporation has worked to showcase the work of its grantees through two annual awards programs. For twenty years, the Chicago Spirit Awards honored one nonprofit organization each year that “demonstrated innovative leadership in improving the quality of life in Chicago.” This citation was accompanied by a $50,000 grant, which was increased to $100,000 in 1999. At the same time, the Sara Lee Foundation Leadership Award was designed ”to foster relationships between employees and nonprofit organizations by focusing on communities where Sara Lee divisions have facilities and by soliciting nominations from Sara Lee employees.” While the preponderance of Sara Lee Foundation dollars are dedicated to its corporate headquarters city Chicago, the corporation's more than 150,000 employees are deployed around the world, with local support through the matching grants and product donations programs. For the Sara Lee Foundation Leadership Awards, an average of three nonprofits were selected each year for “innovative leadership in improving life for individuals facing economic, physical and/or social hardships,” with $2.2 million awarded to forty-eight organizations over the life of the program.

In addition, from 1987 through 1999, the national Sara Lee Frontrunner Awards honored the achievements of remarkable women in the arts, the humanities, government, and business. One woman was selected in each category and a contribution was made in her name to the nonprofit of her choice. Arts awards cited Julia Child, Jane Alexander, Isabel Allende, Maya Angelou, Rita Dove, Lena Horne, Judith Jamison, Kay Koplovitz, Ardis Krainik, Maya Lin, Kate Rand Lloyd, Toni Morrison, Beverly Sills, and Susan Taylor.

In 2000, Sara Lee launched a new corporate vision and is currently in the process of significantly reshaping its business portfolio to narrow the company's focus on a smaller number of global branded consumer packaged goods segments. As the corporation shapes, consolidates, and centralizes, it becomes more reliant on innovation and collaboration to promote growth. This philosophy is reflected in the new direction of the Sara Lee Foundation. While retaining its interest in the arts, hunger, and people living in disadvantaged circumstances, its focus has shifted to innovation to mirror the goals of the business, and as a result grantmaking guidelines have been revised to award somewhat fewer, but in some cases more substantial, grants.

To save prospective grantees unnecessary paperwork, the new RFP process invites two-page letters of intent to be reviewed by the staff, which then invites completion of a full RFP from a smaller group of applicants. Requests of up to $15,000 may be submitted for general operating support, but “requests for more than $15,000 must be program specific, innovative and collaborative and must address specific goals or objectives,” which in the case of the arts might include an event, new work, or exhibition.

Some recent grantmaking highlights include major underwriting support for the Goodman Theatre's inaugural season in its new theater; the Facets Multimedia International Children's Film Festival; The Kylián Project with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to commission new work by Jirí Kylián, artistic director of Nederlands Dans Theater; Studs Terkel's Race which will open the Lookingglass Theatre Company's new building; the Old Town School of Folk Music; Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago; and a bamboo masterworks exhibition at the Field Museum, to name only a few.

As in the past, there is an emphasis on fiscal responsibility in nonprofit business practices, and no organization with an accumulated deficit is eligible for support. Over the years, Sara Lee has taken this injunction seriously, sometimes making workshops available to grantees, to assist them with financial planning.

Overwhelmingly, however, it is clear that Sara Lee is a company that is engaged in the arts and committed to the city of Chicago, and it takes a great deal of pride in its legacy of giving. At Sara Lee, as with many other Chicago businesses, whether local, national, or international, a new generation is taking the reins, and only time will tell whether this new group of leaders will mirror their predecessors in corporate giving and community involvement. Tryloff says she is both “optimistic and realistic,” sentiments that characterize us all as we move forward in this new millennium.

Robin S. Tryloff was recently named president of the Sara Lee Foundation, retaining her previous responsibilities as executive director of the Sara Lee Foundation and executive director-community relations for Sara Lee Corporation. Reflecting on her newly added role, she notes that she enjoys “the additional authority of governance.” She adds that, “Leading the board of trustees is an opportunity to play an even greater role in the future direction of the Foundation.”

With more than twenty-five years of experience in the public and private sectors, she is responsible for directing and administering Sara Lee's philanthropic activities, including corporate contributions and the Foundation's grants and awards programs, as well as Sara Lee's community relations programs. Tryloff is one of a small but growing cadre of arts grantmakers who have been appointed to head foundations or corporate contributions programs with giving portfolios that include the arts within a broad range of social concerns.

Prior to joining Sara Lee in 1991 as the Foundation's executive director, Tryloff was a consultant to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, and previously held executive director positions with the Illinois Arts Council and the Nebraska Arts Council. She began her career as a program specialist for the NEA and subsequently served on several NEA grant review panels and conducted site visits for the NEA. She currently participates on several boards and councils, including the Council on Foundations, the board of the Donors Forum of Chicago (vice chair), the Conference Board Contributions Council, the United Way Chicago Council, and Music and Dance Theater Chicago. Tryloff earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan and a master's degree from the University of Chicago.

Suzanne Sato is program consultant, Gilman Foundation.

1/1/06 Update: Robin Tryloff is an independent consultant and a senior advisor to the Council on Foundations in Washington, D.C.

Randy White is president of the Sara Lee Foundation.