Copyright 2005
Girl's Best Friend Foundation

Girl's Best Friend Foundation (GBF) closed November 2007. 
GBF’s records are archived with Special Collections of the University
of Illinois, Chicago.  In fall 2008, they will be made public:

Heir to Independence

In 1994, Cyndie McLachlan established the Girl’s Best Friend Foundation—a family foundation devoted to supporting risk-taking, creative, community-based programs for girls and young women. Among the foundation’s innovative strategies for empowering girls and young women is Sisters Empowering Sisters, a program that allows girls ages 14-19 from Chicago and the surrounding suburbs to design and implement their own grantmaking strategy.

McLachlan has also taken the unusual step of instituting a “sunset clause” stipulating that the foundation will wind down its operations by 2008. “It’s about creating change now.”

Just before Cyndie McLachlan's husband, Donald, passed away in 1992, McLachlan and her three children were astonished to learn that Donald, a Chicago attorney, had left them a substantial inheritance. A private man, Donald never discussed finances with his family and the family's upper middle class lifestyle betrayed little hint of this level of wealth. As the news sunk in conversation turned to what McLachlan and her children should with this windfall. They met with their lawyer shortly after Donald's death to discuss the inheritance. The lawyer threw out two simple, crystallizing questions: "Right now, what is the most important thing to you?" and "If you could do one thing that would be of benefit, what would that be?"

McLachlan thought about the stories her daughter Kate had shared from her burgeoning career as an advocate for women’s health—the shabby health care poor women received, midwives who were arrested for practicing because Illinois refused to certify home birthing centers, the paucity of funding for women’s organizations. McLachlan thought about her own life as well—her southern belle mother who counseled her not to trust other women, her decision to enroll in college because the New York Times wedding pages only accepted photos of college graduates, her marriage to a wealthy man who never disclosed the details of his personal finances. Politics, feminism, money, personal experience— all these things were tangled together, and although she was just starting to think about how they all fit together, McLachlan realized she had an answer. “If I could teach one woman her own self worth and let her know that she could make a difference, and that she could do something really cool on her own, I would do it.”

When the lawyer suggested the family start a women’s foundation, the conversation gained its own momentum. Why not a foundation that funds girls? Cyndie’s oldest son, Jason, suggested. Let’s get them early. Nods all around. Kate mentioned a recent report documenting the shortage of funding for girls’ groups, especially those that were doing edgy work—comprehensive sex education, high school gay and lesbian support groups, fighting violence in teen dating relationships. These are the things we should be funding, Kate insisted. Soon, Cyndie and her children caught a glimpse of what they could do, and the possibilities multiplied. “We wanted to buck systems and make it different, to get money to groups that didn’t have access to a lot of money—people who wouldn’t shy away from controversy,” Kate recalls. With wry irony, Jason—a “punk-rock paleo-botanist” and PhD candidate at Duke—put it more succinctly: “We want to fund the freaks!” he said.

Two years later, McLachlan and her children founded the Girl’s Best Friend Foundation, a family foundation devoted to supporting risk-taking, creative, community-based programs for girls and young women. Besty Brill served as the founding Executive Director and worked with McLaghlan and others to lead the organization in its early developmental stages. Since its inception in 1994, the Chicago-based foundation has channeled over $2.1 million to more than 100 Illinois organizations across a broad cross section of issues: violence, health policy, sex education, athletics, media education, leadership development, disability rights, juvenile justice reform, arts, and education. Grants range from $2,000 to $16,500, with most grantees receiving an additional 10 percent over and above their grants to support evaluation.

“We wanted to fund all aspects of life that affected girls and that girls could affect,” McLachlan says. “Basically, our goal is to create self-sufficient girls.” The foundation isn’t focused on one specific area, McLachlan says, precisely because there are so many issues that affect girls’ ability to become independent. In addition to its regular programs the foundation has funded a statewide research initiative to learn about the lives of girls and young women across Illinois. (The full report can be accessed at

“I’ve always seen our work as encompassed in one umbrella of having voices heard and modeling the possibility of what one voice can do, what one girl can do,” McLachlan says. The Girl’s Best Friend Foundation has become, in effect, the long answer to the simple questions posed ten years ago.

By her own admission, McLachlan was anunlikely benefactor of the issues and groups her foundation now funds. Born in 1940, McLachlan was raised in northern New Jersey, and lived out what she called a “prototypical 50s suburban childhood.” Her father owned a small abrasives company, and he made enough money to put McLachlan and her older sister through private schools. After graduating from high school—“I don’t have a lot of academic memories,” she says with a laugh, “but I did have a hell of a lot of fun and I was voted biggest flirt in my graduating class; it was sort of like Gidget does high school.”—McLachlan headed off to New York City, partly to work but mostly to find a husband. After realizing that she couldn’t get her wedding photo in the New York Times unless she went to college, McLachlan enrolled at Bennett Junior College in Millbrook, New York, where she met her future husband, John Stifler, a Classics major at Princeton. They married two days after he graduated and moved to Champaign, Illinois, where John attended law school.

The couple divorced in 1970, and McLachlan—older, wiser, and now living in Chicago with Kate and Jason—married Donald McLachlan, another lawyer, in 1972. The couple had a son, Devin, and the family lived together until Donald died of cancer when he was 54. Because he was a patriarchal and private man, Donald and Cyndie never discussed their finances. “It was a very ‘Leave it to Beaver’ lifestyle,” she explains. The family lived in a modest townhouse, and although Donald’s law practice allowed them to send their children to good schools—her daughter Kate graduated from Connecticut College, her oldest son Jason from Columbia University, and Devin from Harvard—McLachlan never thought of the family as wealthy. To the contrary, she says, she was “stunned and horrified” at the size of her inheritance. “It scared me to see this money,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what to do with it.”

Despite her initial shock, McLachlan and her children jumped in without fear. “The sense I have was that the family was really shocked by how much they inherited—and that’s very common,” says Alice Cottingham, the foundation’s executive director. “We often think of shock as a paralyzing emotion, but in this case it was really catalyzing.” McLachlan and her children were not intimidated by the idea of starting a foundation, she says. Kate’s experience in the field spurred the entire family’s interests. They really wanted to learn, Cottingham says, and “curiosity was a compelling reason to develop the foundation.”

McLachlan and her children recognized that while they had the financial resources to support the progressive girls’ organizations, the foundation’s success would depend on bringing to the board what McLachlan calls a “kaleidoscope of voices.” “We intentionally created a board of community activists,” Kate says. “We really wanted it to be women on the ground.” Board members bring experience, program expertise, and knowledge of local communities to the work, and until recently the board was very hands-on, conducting site visits and reviewing initial proposals. It’s a governing structure that combines the autonomy of a privately funded foundation with the broad representation of a community foundation.

“We’re not like other boards,” McLachlan says. “Each board member is involved in social justice work. Nobody is on the board as the wife of the bank president, and part of the reason for that is that I’m the sole funder, which allows us to take risks, and to concentrate on cutting-edge work.”

Nothing demonstrates the foundation’s taste for risk like Sisters Empowering Sisters. Established in 1997, Sisters Empowering Sisters is a grantmaking program that does what few foundations are willing to do: share grantmaking authority—in this case with a diverse group of young women between the ages of 14-19 from Chicago and the surrounding suburbs who design and implement their own grantmaking strategy. Members meet twice a month for trainings, meetings, site visits, presentations, and grantmaking deliberations. Each year, the girls present a slate of grantees to the full board, which approves final grants. Since its inception, the grantmaking budget has grown from $5,000 in 1997 to $39,000 in 2002.

This past year, SES sent out 400 requests for proposals and received 30 grant applications. Grants average between $1,000-$2,000 and run the gamut from media projects—one group this year is producing a documentary on the social and political forces stopping a woman from becoming President—to programs targeting teen dating violence, art, and literacy. “It’s a very eclectic group of grantees,” says Yamani Hernandez, Sisters Empowering Sisters’ director. “But the main criteria is that it’s girl-led.” SES provides participants with a unique combination of intimacy and power, a mix difficult to find in the culture at large. “For girls who live in the suburbs, Sisters Empowering Sisters allows them to visit places and talk to people they’d never usually encounter,” Hernandez says. “It can be a life-changing experience.” The program allows girls of all backgrounds to cultivate skills they rarely get to use—public speaking, decision-making, allocating large sums of money. “Girls gain a lot of confidence. They run the meetings, and they have a high level of responsibility and initiative,” Hernandez says. Even so, Hernandez notes, the

This is the first in a four-part series developed by Women & Philanthropy profiling innovative new foundations that are committed to improving the lives of women and girls. Special thanks to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for funding this series of articles for the New Wealth Women and Philanthropy Project, a joint venture of Women & Philanthropy and the Women's Funding Network.

Reproduction of this article with appropriate attribution is welcome and encouraged.

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Women & Philanthropy’s Innovative New Foundation Series
women & philanthropy provides leadership for foundations and philanthropists to create a more caring and just world through the full engagement of women and girls.

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