Copyright 2005
Girl's Best Friend Foundation

Gem of a leader will be missed

By Cindy Richards
Posted: Nov 30, 2023

Gem of a leader will be missed

November 30, 2023

Girls in Chicago lost their best friend last week.

Cynthia K. McLachlan, the founder and benefactor behind Girl's Best Friend Foundation, died on Thanksgiving Day after a long battle with lung cancer. Her foundation was the first philanthropy in Chicago and one of the first in the country devoted to serving the needs of girls.

The foundation will outlive her, but only by a few years. Executive Director Alice Cottingham said the foundation will spend the entire $15 million donated by Ms. McLachlan and close by the middle of 2008.

Ms. McLachlan created the foundation 11 years ago after inheriting a stunningly large sum from her late husband, Chicago attorney Donald McLachlan.

"She was flabbergasted at how much money there was," Cottingham said. "In some people, an inheritance that big can paralyze. It ignited outrage and action in Cyndie."

The outrage was at least partly directed toward herself. She was shocked and embarrassed that she had lived a life so traditional -- he took care of the finances, she took care of the socializing -- that she was completely unaware of how much money they had, Cottingham said.

She wanted to use her money to do good for others. Her daughter, Kate, persuaded Ms. McLachlan to use her money to do good for girls.

They chose to spend the money quickly rather that set up a fund that would give small amounts away in perpetuity, said Betsy Brill, the consultant who helped the family form the foundation and then served as its first executive director. They wanted to have a greater impact in a shorter time.

"I think it's unquestionable that we have had an impact on leaders of the organizations that receive money from us and on the girls that have been served by those organizations," said Tracey Fischman, chair of the foundation board and a longtime friend of Ms. McLachlan.

Ms. McLachlan, her daughter and two sons wanted to help girls develop into feminist leaders who work for social justice. They took the name from the song "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend." According to the foundation's Web site, the idea was "that, given recognition and support, girls and young women will grow to see themselves as highly valued, multifaceted, strong and brilliant -- just like diamonds."

It was an interesting goal for a woman who was raised not to trust other women, she said in a letter in the foundation's 2005 annual report. "I only went to college because I learned that the New York Times only published wedding announcements of those who'd graduated," she admitted, adding, "Can you believe it? I don't know if my motivation or the paper's policy was nuttier!"

Since its creation in 1994, Girl's Best Friend has given money to more than 120 Illinois nonprofit organizations that serve girls.

To ensure those organizations live on beyond the foundation, Ms. McLachlan's money is being used to develop two ongoing organizations -- the Chicago Girls Coalition, a membership and support organization for the nonprofits that serve girls in the Chicago area, and the Chicago Summer Freedom School, a training program for young people who want to "change themselves, their communities and the world."

Best of all, my favorite Girls Best Friend program, Sisters Empowering Sisters, likely will continue. Cottingham said the foundation is looking for a new home for the program, which lets a group of girls choose which organizations to fund.

Brill said Ms. McLachlan's death is a "great loss for many of us and for the universe. Her spirit and impact was so widespread that it will live way beyond this time."

Certainly it will live on in 17-year-old Samantha Affram, who is quoted in the 2005 annual report: "I feel that women can do whatever we put our minds to. What stop us are the itty-bitty boxes society puts us in. I try to stand in opposition to those itty-bitty boxes."

Ms. McLachlan would be proud of her.

Copyright © The Sun-Times Company


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