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Richard Turner: A Lifetime of Giving
by Andrew Davis

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To say that Richard Turner has been selfless would be an understatement.

For almost three decades, Turner has been a development professional and a grant maker. However, it is arguably in the volunteer arena —and specifically regarding AIDS—where he has made his mark. He was the first board member added to the board of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago after its founding and was a member of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt's national board of directors.

He also served as the national president and subsequently became the executive director of the New York-based Funders Concerned About AIDS. In addition, he has gotten deeply involved in the arts. Turner has served on the board of Steppenwolf Theatre; was the founding president of the Wisdom Bridge and Travel Light Theater boards; and served on the Arts Council theater committee. He is currently chairing the board of the Chicago Academy for the Arts.

It would seem a given that someone who has been so devoted to an endeavor such as philanthropy would gain the admiration of many—and that indeed has been the case. Turner has received numerous awards, including the Chicago House Founders Award; he was also part of the very first group that was inducted into Chicago's Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame. On Dec. 10, Turner will be one of six individuals honored by the Chicago chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals ( AFP ) . Turner will be receive AFP Professional Grantor Award. The award is given annually to a corporate or foundation giving officer recognized for his/her professionalism, sensitivity and generous support to the nonprofit community.

Turner, who is the manager of corporate contributions for Peoples Energy, took a few moments to talk to Windy City Times. He came across as articulate, charming, and self-effacing—qualities that are hardly surprising for an altruist to have.

Windy City Times: Let's get some background. What did you study in college and what was your first job? I'm assuming that you didn't start off in philanthropy.

Richard Turner: I went to the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University; then, I got a master's degree in secondary education from Arizona State. My first job was newspaper reporting for a North Shore paper. After that, I taught English and journalism for eight years—two in Arizona and six at Niles West High School in Skokie. I also did some stints at the Lyric Opera and WTTW before I finally figured what I wanted to do in 1985, when I worked at the [ philanthropic organization ] Chicago Community Trust.

WCT: What made you realize that philanthropy was your calling?

RT: Actually, my earlier statement was facetious. I didn't realize it until I got there. [ Working at the Trust ] was a wonderful job with a phenomenal staff of some of the brightest people I'd met. It was there that I realized what organized philanthropy is all about. This is a real cliche, but to understand the difference between charity and philanthropy involves understanding the potential of philanthropy for impact and leadership.

This job was one of the most intellectually challenging things I'd done outside of college. I had to identify community problems as well as evaluate organizations and causes. It was also very rewarding but there was this responsibility because it wasn't your money.

WCT: You've been with a lot of groups. What makes you decide to join a board?

RT: My dad died when I was three months old; my mother was a schoolteacher. She was constantly involved in organizations and never neglected me. ( She actually saved enough money on her salary to send me to Northwestern. ) I didn't know what volunteer services were; I thought everyone did it. My mother was such an active participant in the community; I thought that was what I was expected to do.

I looked for causes that interested me. Out of college, a lot of the groups that were theatrical. I then managed summer stock companies, and that eventually led to [ working with ] the Lyric Opera.

It was the AIDS crisis that really stimulated me. I had to do something; AIDS was impacting my friends and community. I got involved in the very early days of Chicago House; the Trust was phenomenally supportive of that. From there, I went to the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, which led to other groups such as the Human Rights Campaign. It may not be obvious, but there's a link in all of this.

WCT: Do you recall the first time you heard about AIDS?

RT: Yes. I was here in Chicago. We went through the whole schtick of the gay plague. By the way, that was the thing about working with the Trust; it worked with community issues, such as AIDS.

While it wasn't until late in the crisis that I lost close friends, losing people I identified with as well as individuals in my own community had a tremendous impact on me. It brought our community together and empowered us.

WCT: Do you feel that there's a complacency about AIDS?

RT: Yes, there's tremendous complacency—and it's sad. In organized philanthropy, there are affinity groups that try to advance particular causes. For example, the goal of Funders Concerned About AIDS was to advance the philanthropic response to the AIDS crisis. When I became executive director [ in the early 1990s ] , I gained a national perspective of the whole situation. AIDS doesn't seem to be such a priority now.

WCT: In 1991, you were inducted into the Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame. What was that like?

RT: It was wonderful. Andrew, I've been damn lucky. I've always been in supportive environments. I was nominated by the founder of Chicago House; he said that he chose me because I was an openly gay man who was out in the corporate world and was playing a leadership role. With the activists who are getting in now, I don't think I'd make it in.

WCT: You don't think so? With all the contributions you've made ...

RT: I served a different purpose at that time. Also, I haven't been that active in the community in the last four or five years. In addition, the issue of the 'larger [ corporate ] community' was important back then.

WCT: Now what does it feel like to get this award from AFP?

RT: This is really nice. This is getting an award for what you love doing. I love this job; I come to work and the first time I'll look at my watch is usually between three and four o'clock. It's so stimulating—and indeed a privilege—to interface with people who are doing all of this good stuff in the community. To be perceived as open, honest, and caring is really reassuring.

WCT: How does it feel to know that you are quite possibly inspiring others?

RT: I've had some great experiences. If someone sees something in what I've done and that helps him, that's absolutely wonderful.

The Association of Fundraising Professionals' 28th Annual Philanthropy Awards Luncheon is Dec. 10 at Hilton Chicago & Towers, 720 S. Michigan, starting at 11 a.m. Contact Patti Wilson at ( 630 ) 416-1166.

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