Leslie Bluhm, ’89: Keeping Chicago’s Volunteer Network “In Service”

Appeared in Record issue: 
Spring 2012

Less than two years after she graduated from the Law School, Leslie Bluhm, ’89, founded Chicago Cares, the nonprofit that is now the largest volunteer service organization in the Midwest.

An avid volunteer as she was growing up, Bluhm continued that practice while she was at the Law School and then when she was an associate at Skadden Arps in New York. Returning to Chicago in 1991, she was surprised to see that many of her friends and colleagues were not volunteering. “They didn’t know where to turn to find the right opportunities,” she recalls, “and they were afraid of becoming overcommitted, given their very busy lives.”

She set out to fix that by founding Chicago Cares and serving as its first executive director. And she succeeded: more than 350,000 Chicago Cares volunteers have now contributed more than a million hours of service through more than 25,000 group volunteer projects. The organization offers a broad range of ways to serve. There’s an online listing of more than 200 monthly group volunteer programs, carefully crafted so potential volunteers can easily identify situations that match their interests and their schedules. There are two annual days of service, during which thousands participate; one is in January, in honor of Martin Luther King’s birthday, and the other is in June. There’s the Business Shares program, which creates customized, hands-on group volunteer projects for corporations that complement the companies’ team building, leadership development, and philanthropy initiatives.

One principal focus of Bluhm’s personal attention these days is Chicago Cares’ Youth in Service program, which provides groups of Chicago public school students with an in-depth volunteering experience that includes analyzing needs in their communities and then creating and leading programs targeted to those needs.

“Seeing these young people become active, committed agents of change is tremendously gratifying,” she says. “They’re gaining skills they can use long after their time with Chicago Cares is over.”

Instilling a long-term commitment to volunteering is a primary goal for Bluhm, who says, “We want to activate and inspire people to serve throughout their lives. We want them to experience the great impact that every volunteer can have.” Toward that end, Chicago Cares carefully constructs and manages volunteer opportunities so they are substantive and fulfilling. Many of its 40 staff members are engaged in creating projects from the ground up to meet community needs while providing a satisfying experience for volunteers, and the organization thoroughly trains volunteer project leaders who are responsible for ensuring that each volunteer’s experience is enjoyable and meaningful.

The unique funding model that Bluhm created for Chicago Cares, in which roughly 75 percent of the organization’s income is derived from donations it receives for its customized Business Shares programming, provides a firm platform for sustainable growth. Chicago Cares is one of only 9 percent of nonprofits to receive the highest financial rating over four consecutive years from Charity Navigator, America’s largest independent charity evaluator—a testimony to exceptional financial health and fiscal responsibility.

“I always knew that my heart was in the nonprofit world, so I took a lot of courses at the Law School that would help me with that,” Bluhm says. “Little did I know that I’d soon be running the equivalent of a small business. The critical-thinking and problem-solving skills that I acquired at the Law School have been very valuable—and I don’t think there’s any better place to develop those kinds of skills.”

She served on the Law School’s Visiting Committee for six years. Last year Bluhm and her husband, David Helfand, created the Bluhm/Helfand Social Innovation Fellowship, which recognizes socially minded innovators, entrepreneurs, and change agents who are under the age of 35, and Bluhm also has pledged to reinforce Mayor Emanuel’s health and sustainability initiatives by supporting the creation of community gardens in Chicago. Chicago Cares remains her primary focus, though. She says, “Chicago Cares has been my life’s work and I remain passionately devoted to its mission. I started Chicago Cares because I believe that a thriving community requires a dedicated volunteer corps. As far as we’ve come, there’s still so much to do, so many deeper ways to encourage and grow volunteerism. I’m expecting to be at this for a long time.”