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When Leslie Bluhm founded Chicago Cares with her friend Mary Prchal on Earth Day of 1991, she would not have defined herself as a social entrepreneur. It was, she says, a term she had never heard before—but it is a description she now passionately embraces.

At the first Chicago Ideas Week in October, Bluhm and her husband, the real-estate investment manager David Helfand, awarded the inaugural Bluhm/Helfand Social Innovation Fellowship to five social entrepreneurs under the age of 35. Bluhm hopes the grants—$10,000 each—will help cultivate a community in which entrepreneurs can network and share ideas. But the fellowships also commemorate a personal milestone: the 20th anniversary of Chicago Cares, the Midwest’s largest volunteer service organization, which reaches out to nearly every Chicago neighborhood as it coordinates more than 200 group service projects a month.

A University of Chicago Law School graduate, former attorney, and self-described workaholic do-gooder, Bluhm cofounded the nonprofit Chicago Cares after noticing that her colleagues weren’t volunteering. “I realized it wasn’t because they didn’t want to volunteer,” she recalls. “They really had no idea where to turn. They were afraid of overcommitting, or they didn’t want to do it alone.”

Bluhm had a simple but innovative solution: partner with nonprofit organizations to create service opportunities for busy working people. Since its inception, Chicago Cares has hosted over 330,000 volunteers. Collectively they have clocked more than a million hours of service, tutoring at-risk children, preparing meals at shelters, leading art workshops, and teaching computer skills to seniors, among other things.

Since appointing a new executive director last March, the 47-year-old Bluhm has stepped back from day-to-day operations to focus on Business Shares, a corporate partnership that generates 75 percent of the funding for Chicago Cares. She is also overseeing new initiatives, such as the Student Service and Leadership program for Chicago public school students. “I am positive volunteers can change the world,” Bluhm says. “We are training people about the value of service, and hopefully they will use those skills throughout their lives wherever they find themselves.”


Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp