Two Thumbs Up: How Roger Ebert’s Legacy Lives on Through Chicago Giving

For film fans around the world, Roger Ebert is forever famous for the trademarked phrase “Two thumbs up.” But for many nonprofits in Chicago, the local legend also represents new opportunities.

Roger Ebert’s connection to Chicago goes deep, and he was well known for his film review columns in the Chicago Sun-Times. He and his wife established the Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation in 2004, well before the film critic’s death from cancer in April 2013.

To celebrate the anniversary of Ebert’s death, the Ebert Foundation awards annual grants to local nonprofits in Chicago. Earlier this spring, the funder awarded $1,000 grants to 21 organizations that are working to improve life for people in Chicago and advance the arts. These grants were announced at Ebert’s star in front of the Chicago Theater, where friends, family, and fans had gathered to celebrate his life.

While some local groups may be quick to write off the Ebert Foundation as a strict film funder, this is not actually the case. Sure, a significant amount of support goes to Chicago nonprofits that are launching the careers of independent filmmakers. Recent grants have gone to the Chicago Media Project, the Chicago Film Critics Association, and the Independent Filmmaker Project of Chicago, for example. But the foundation’s grantmaking is also driven by Ebert’s commitment to empathy, not just his passion for movies.

“These organizations were chosen carefully,” Chaz Ebert said. “There are so many worthy organizations, but we chose 21, and they are organizations that help children, women and families, an organization that helps keeps father’s in the lives of their children. We also have organizations for the arts, and that’s what we are celebrating today.”

Local leaders have commended Roger Ebert for his longstanding commitment to the city of Chicago and for using his critiques of films to look at the important issues and questions of our time. Because of its overarching values of empathy, kindness, and compassion, this is a foundation that is becoming an active, small-scale funder in human services grantmaking, as well as the arts. Recent grantees also include Afterschool Matters, Mercy Home for Boys and Girls and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.

There’s funder also supports ways for the arts to influence the public good. Film and music can inspire peace, and this is something that Chicago so desperately needs right now. Rather than taking an equity approach, this funder is taking an empathy approach to grantmaking.  

Something else that’s notable about the Ebert Foundation lately is the sheer number of local grants it's giving. In the most recent round of giving, it awarded 21 grants. Admittedly, grants of $1,000 each certainly aren’t the largest of their kind being distributed around town, but that kind of money can make a real difference to smaller nonprofits.  

At this time, the Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation does not have an official website, so the grantmaking guidelines and application details are unclear. However, the foundation is based at 108 West Grand Avenue in Chicago, and can be reached at 312-321-9700. The website,, is an active venue for movie criticism, commentary, and community with dozens of contributors, including Chaz. You can read Chaz Ebert’s perspective about recent foundation giving and the selected grantees here.