Our Story

Our History and Major Milestones Along our Path

Polk Bros. Foundation exists today due to the success of the Polk Bros chain of retail appliance and furniture stores, a Chicago institution for nearly 60 years. We are proud that the Foundation's work today so fully embodies the values espoused by the original Polk brothers — and sister! — who in building their retail chain emphasized the connection of the 17 stores to their local neighborhoods. They were on the ground, accessible and deeply committed to fellow Chicagoans. We have tried to run the Foundation in the same way.


  • 2018The Foundation celebrates the 10th year of the Polk Bros. Foundation Affordable Rental Housing Preservation award.

  • July 2017Polk Bros Park at Navy Pier unveils two new performance stages to complement the popular fountain and beautiful green space.

  • June 2017Polk Bros. Foundation’s Board of Directors authorizes the creation of an Urgent Action Fund.

    Polk Bros. Foundation creates an Urgent Action Fund – a commitment to spend beyond the Board’s spending policy guideline for the next 1-2 years – to address three immediate crises facing Chicagoans: skyrocketing gun violence, threats to the legal rights of immigrants, and the lack of a state budget and sufficient funding for critical human services.
  • 2016Polk Bros. Foundation helps establish the Partnership for Safe and Peaceful Communities.

    Chicago is facing dual crises of rising gun violence and a decline in police legitimacy. In response, Polk Bros. Foundation and over 30 other Chicago funders come together to form the Partnership for Safe and Peaceful Communities, with a commitment to support proven and promising approaches to reducing gun violence in Chicago. Members work together to coordinate their individual investments in four key strategies: street outreach, support services and jobs; police reform that includes community involvement; gun policy; and community safety and peace.

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  • July 2014Polk family makes a $20 million legacy gift to Navy Pier to create Polk Bros Park.


    Polk Family
    To honor the work of the Polk brothers and sister who founded the Polk Bros chain of appliance stores and to introduce a new generation of Chicagoans to the legacy of the Polk Bros appliance chain, the Polk family makes a one-time $20 million legacy gift to transform the 13-acre gateway to Navy Pier into a beautiful green space where Chicagoans and visitors can come together to celebrate Chicago, explore the arts, and enjoy themselves.

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  • January 2014Polk Bros. Foundation celebrates its 25th Anniversary.



    The Foundation reflects on its role and work in this video. Later, at a celebratory gathering, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and numerous foundation partners speak about income inequality and its impact in Chicago.
  • 2013Gillian Darlow becomes CEO.

    Gillian Darlow

    Soon after joining the Foundation, Darlow holds listening sessions with 250 grantee organizations to hear about Chicagoans’ most pressing and current needs. Based on these listening sessions and informed by research, the Foundation embarks on a strategic planning process that leads to updated program area guides, a new focus on enhanced capacity, and the decision to support the real costs of programs by no longer placing a cap on administrative costs in its grantmaking.

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  • 2012Sandra P. Guthman and Nikki Will Stein retire at year-end, with Sandra retaining her position as Chair of the Board of Directors.

    Polk Bros Portrait
  • 2011As an inaugural funder, Polk Bros. Foundation helps launch Ingenuity to increase arts education access, equity, and quality in Chicago Public Schools.

  • 2009With a founding grant, Polk Bros. Foundation helps launch Chicago High School for the Arts, the city's first public high school for the arts.

  • 2008Despite the economic downturn and a 26% decline in assets, the Board commits to continuing level grantmaking to help grantees weather severe financial challenges and dramatic increases in demand for their services.

  • 2007Annual grantmaking exceeds $20 million for the first time, and continues at $20 million to $27 million in each subsequent year.

    The Foundation also releases initial strategy guides to articulate the goals and theories of change for each program area.
  • 2006A survey of 283 grantees ensures extensive input from grantees is built into strategic planning and ongoing grantmaking.

  • 2004The Foundation develops its Affordable Rental Housing Initiative to address Chicago’s lack of affordable housing.

    Photo Library
  • 2003The Foundation’s staff takes a leadership role in the City’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness.

    Later, staff advance other citywide collaborations, including the 2016 Plan for Chicago’s Neighborhoods, the CPS Arts Education Plan, and the Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs, among others.
  • 2001Cumulative grantmaking totals $100 million.

  • 2000The Foundation’s School-Based Health Centers Initiative launches with a first round of planning grants to three school/health provider partnerships.

  • 1997The Foundation helps create the Fund for Immigrants and Refugees.

    This grantmakers collaboration is developed in response to the impact on immigrants and refugees of welfare and immigration legislation passed in 1996.
  • 1996The Foundation pilots the full-service community school model.

    Starting in three CPS schools, the Foundation leads a citywide campaign in 2002 that grows to include more than 100 community schools by 2005, and more than 200 community schools citywide today.

    CSI
  • 1994Annual grantmaking reaches $10 million for the first time.

    The Foundation also issues the first of three RFPs for grants to major cultural organizations to increase the long-term impact of their arts education programs with Chicago public school students.
  • 1993Sandra P. Guthman becomes the Foundation’s first chief executive officer, leaving a lifelong career at IBM.

    Sandra P. Guthman
  • 1992The last of the 17 Polk Bros stores closes.

    “In the spring of 1992, a Chicago Tribune front page banner headline announced, ‘End of an era: Polk Bros to close doors.’ … The news kindled a surge of nostalgia throughout the Chicago area, and, in fact across the nation. Polk Bros was not just a business. The fabulous old appliance and furniture chain was a retailing legend, a Chicago institution, a household word. In the coming months people would realize how deeply the passing of Polk Bros would be mourned.” — from I Bought it at Polk Bros by Ann Paden
  • 1989Nikki Will Stein is hired as the Foundation's first executive director.

    Nikki-Stein
  • 1988Polk Bros stores make an initial transfer of $42 million in assets to the Polk Bros. Foundation.

    Polk Bros Board Members
    The first board meeting is held on November 18. The original Board of Directors includes (from left to right) Bruce R. Bachmann, Raymond F. Simon, J. Ira Harris, Gordon S. Prussian, Sandra P. Guthman, Sidney Epstein and Howard J. Polk. Later, an additional $120 million in assets is transferred to complete the endowment for the Foundation.