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Donna LaPietra Combines Art and Philanthropy to Build a Better Chicago

From the newsroom to the ballroom, Donna finds meaning, purpose, and joy in making others shine. 

A call to service

Donna LaPietra does not believe in half measures – not in the tv shows she produces, not in the countless galas she brings to life, and not in the gardens she so carefully tends. The artist-philanthropist-civic leader is always all in. And her motivation? Service to the community. This desire, I learned, stems from her experience in the news department at CBS 2.

“The airwaves belong to the public. I recognized early on that it is a privilege to not only provide the news and programming for the greater good but to have a meaningful presence in the community,” Donna recalls with conviction. She may have stepped away from the newsroom, but the message continues to resonate.

“When you are given the gift of privilege in any form, there is a responsibility to contribute to raising your community. What comes from that is civic pride, and a joy to be part of something bigger than yourself.” 

Bringing stories to life

Driven by her commitment to serve, Donna began serving on Women’s and Associate Boards of various Chicago institutions, and eventually on their Board of Directors. She is active in several organizations like Millennium Park (where she serves as Chairman of the Millennium Park Foundation Board), Navy Pier, the Joffrey Ballet, Steppenwolf Theater, Chicago Botanic Garden, and the Chicago Public Library Foundation.

Sure enough, Donna has found a way to lend her artistic expertise to amplify the voices of organizations that are making a difference. Pulling from her historied television experience, Donna began drawing attention to the work and the missions of different non-profit organizations. “Producing a tv show and producing galas are extremely similar. You must tell a captivating story that will move your audience. And there are so many awe-inspiring stories the non-profit community has to offer, stories that transform lives and shape communities for the better,” she explains with passion and determination in equal parts. Indeed, Donna has brought these stories to life with the tenacity of a seasoned producer and the sincerity of a civic leader.

“When I produce a gala, I think of the whole experience – from the moment guests step through the doors. Lighting, music, and sound must evoke visceral emotions, be it a moment of laughter, bringing the audience to tears, and always a sense of inspiration,” she says.

“If you can do that, afterglow happens. People remember the event. More importantly, they take the mission back home, share it with their friends, and they contribute to the cause.”

Just like television, there are challenges in putting together a non-profit gala. “You have to keep the budget in mind as you keep looking for ways to reimagine an event over and over,” Donna says candidly. But if anything, these challenges only serve to inspire Donna to think out of the box. “I’ve used wind-up toys when a light spirit was appropriate and worked with authors to sign and donate books as the center- and conversation pieces for guests at the Library Foundation Dinner.”

A bibliophile at heart

What excites Donna to return every year and reinvent the Library Foundation Awards? Her love for Chicago Public Library! Born to an educator, Donna fell in love with books as a young child. The library became her sanctuary until her college years at Carnegie-Mellon University. Her introduction to Chicago Public Library happened when she needed to conduct research for the newsroom.

In 1991, Bill Kurtis, legendary TV journalist, and Donna’s husband teamed up with Donna for the Harold Washington Library Center inauguration. “Bill and I set up time-lapse cameras as the central Library opened its doors. We were fortunate to tell the story of the Library and its role in Chicago neighborhoods.”

Donna has been sharing the Library story ever since, serving on the Board of Directors and as the producer for the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner, renamed this year to the Chicago Public Library Foundation Awards to encompass additional non-literary honors.

“The Library is a community center as much as it is a repository for great literature,” says Donna. “And the pandemic has underscored the importance of the Library in the city,” She continues.

“When you think of how many things were closed, the one institution that all of us were committed to seeing opened were the libraries: a place people could come to free of charge. We’ve been delighted that the Library has reopened safely.”

Celebrating Donna’s civic journey

For over a decade, Donna LaPietra has been the woman tirelessly working behind the scenes to make the Chicago Public Library Foundations’ annual Awards dinner a visual spectacle and fundraising success. This year, it will be a little different. Donna will be on the other side of the camera as she receives the Inaugural Civic Award.

“I recognize the immense proportion of this honor, particularly because it is the first time that an award recognizing civic engagement will be honored at this event. There are so many bold leaders, innovative game-changers, generous philanthropists, and compassionate visionaries. I have had the privilege to interact with many of them─to benefit from what they have built and be encouraged by their actions. So, I am humbled.” 

Donna dedicates this award to Cindy Pritzker, her role model for service and one of the Library Foundation’s founders. “I owe so much to Cindy. Her fearlessness, innovation, visionary thought, and her willingness to embrace people and ideas inspire me,” she shares.

Donna cannot wait to wear her production hat once more and to bring future honorees to the stage.

Thank you, Donna, for your contributions to the strength and vitality of our great city. Thank you, for helping organizations share our stories.

Join Donna LaPietra, Nate Marshall, and Isabel Wilkerson for the first-ever virtual Chicago Public Library Foundation Awards on December 9 at 6:30 pm CST. No ticket is required and gifts at all levels are welcome. Reserve your spot and you will be entered into a special drawing to win Donna, Nate, and Isabel’s special book lists. We’ll see you there!

Proceeds from the event power our Library and empower every Chicagoan by providing accessible and free resources during this challenging time, so we can get back on our feet, rebuild our lives and our communities.