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The Field Foundation was established by Marshall Field III in 1940 while he was living in New York City. Grandson of the famous merchant who came to Chicago in the 1800s, Marshall Field III went into the bond business rather than the retail business. Moved by the despair created during the Great Depression, he was inspired to help those struggling with poverty and endorsed a wide range of New Deal policies, activists and progressive thinkers. In the 1940s, Field III also founded the Chicago Sun, which later merged with the Chicago Times to become the Chicago Sun-Times.

Assembling an impressive board of advisors that included some of the country's leading social scientists, scholars, business leaders and judges, Field III wanted the foundation to create "a few ideas and social techniques [that may] germinate and eventually prove to be of enough value to be adopted by the community." A passionate integrationist, he had a deep interest in matters of race and juvenile behavior.

Four years after Field III's death, in 1960 the foundation was divided into two separate entities: the Field Foundation of New York, which was led by Field III's widow, Ruth, and the Field Foundation of Illinois, led by Field's son, Marshall Field IV. By 1989, as Ruth Field had directed, the Field Foundation of New York fully spent its assets and closed. The Field Foundation of Illinois, meanwhile, became an active member of Chicago's philanthropic community and a key supporter of the city's major institutions. In June 1965, just before he died, Marshall Field IV offered to contribute $8 million to the Field Foundation of Illinois if the Field Building at 135 S. LaSalle were to be transferred at its fair market value, which then was worth $32.5 million. These two transactions became the centerpiece of the foundation's assets.

Over the years the Field Foundation has responded to the changing needs of our community, continuing to support Chicago's institutions as well as a diverse range of community based efforts. The Foundation has long viewed itself as a strategic enabler, rather than a long-term sustainer, of innovative programs and organizations, with a primary emphasis on underserved and disadvantaged individuals and populations.