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The Private Club and its Impact on the Community:The Union League Club of Chicago

Sometimes a private club has a very public focus on its community. The Union League Club of Chicago (ULCC) is involved in extensive foundation activities dedicated to supporting the community and the arts, sponsoring three separate foundations devoted to charitable activities.


The Union League Club of Chicago has all the trappings of a top-echelon club and has been recognized as one of the very best U.S. clubs. In 2009, Club Leaders Forum designated it as America’s number one city club, an honor based on a large-scale survey of industry experts such as general managers, club presidents and board directors.

At the ULCC you can expect to find the very best in dining at any one of its three dining rooms. And, as befits its excellent location in Chicago’s central business district (aka “The Loop”), the club offers amenities that make it a go-to resource for either a business luncheon or big gathering. Other amenities include the club’s athletic department, which supports numerous activities and facilities as well as follow-on relaxation and rejuvenation in the sauna or steam room with spa services and massage therapists standing by.

But to understand the engine that drives the ULCC’s longevity—its origins date back to the Civil War era—and its impressive record of growth and expanding influence, you would need to look beyond the well-appointed club facilities and the purely lifestyle and social pursuits the club supports. This is because the club’s mission, its purpose in organizing and working together, has largely to do with the members’ engagement in community life. The club—its programs, its committees and human resources—embodies a deep commitment to understanding and advancing issues that affect the Chicago area.


The club has both a carefully conceived organizational structure and an agenda that maintains a set of broad range of activities— engaging in important public affairs matters, mapping the issues landscape, consulting with political leaders and subject matter experts, crafting well thought-out position papers and rolling up its members’ collective sleeves and working toward the advancement of key initiatives and causes.

The Public Affairs Committee (PAC) is the key coordinating mechanism that club members rely upon to set their ambitious commitments in motion. This committee, in turn, spins off into several other subcommittees that take ownership of special topics and causes and take the lead in organizing programs, advocacy roles and constructive action. The reach of the club extends into areas that involve criminal justice and judicial matters, education, heath, military affairs, race, transportation, economic development and government accountability.


The ULCC’s efforts are, in part, aimed to keep members informed; but this awareness and knowledge also provides a solid foundation for subsequent action and attempts to chart a path toward civic progress. The club is quite open in its embrace of issues and its desire to influence change—the ULCC’s executive director of public affairs also serves as a registered lobbyist. The club’s own history is replete with notable achievements, instances in which its efforts, often joining in common cause with other concerned citizens and interest groups, have tackled big problems and made important and enduring progress.

To provide a few examples, the club has worked to secure better and fairer treatment of the mentally ill in the criminal justice system, supported Illinois’ death penalty reforms, and set in motion a chain of events that led to construction of the magnificent Harold Washington Library Center, one of the largest and most prestigious public library buildings in the world.

The ULCC also provides its institutional backing and philanthropic support to foundations that are engaged in art, education and improving the lives of young people. The Union League Boys & Girls Clubs are an important and positive influence in the lives of more than 12,000 Chicago children at multiple sites throughout the city and its summer camp in Salem, Wis. Scholarships to college-bound engineers via the Chicago’s Engineer’s Foundation and the promotion of the work and careers of young artists through the Luminarts Cultural Foundation are also longstanding charitable commitments sponsored by the ULCC.


The ULCC’s record of community engagement and public service reaches back more than 100 years. As you trace the club’s involvement with crises and controversies that now span three different centuries, it reads like a social history of the United States: capital punishment, racial equality, labor reform, women’s suffrage. No doubt, the club has served its community and country well.

But let’s look at all this from a slightly different angle. This habit of service and leadership has also been very good for the club and its many members. The reputation of the ULCC is sterling and it ranks at the apex of our city club network. As some city clubs struggle to attract members and maintain relevance, the ULCC has a diverse and vibrant membership roster that continues to grow and refresh itself. At present there are more than 4,000 members of the ULCC, with about 20 percent under the age of 35 and growing numbers of women.

A private club that promotes the enrichment of members’ lives and improvement of the world by creating opportunities for camaraderie, personal enrichment and meaningful community involvement is a recipe for attracting an interesting, educated and engaged membership.

And, really, why wouldn’t you want to be a member of the ULCC? If you’re a young professional and new to the Chicago area, then a club membership opens the door to an informed network of established and active people who have a worldly perspective and are ready to quicken the pace of change.

For that matter, where else are you likely to score tickets to the Nine Inch Nails concert and the opportunity to enjoy it with other club members, whose tastes likely run the gamut from museums (the Art Institute) to music (the Chicago Symphony) to mayhem (the Chicago Blackhawks)?

The price of admission? A lot less than you might imagine. The Union League Club of Chicago is a great value in club membership and one that is made even more accessible by tiered membership with initiation and dues adjusted accordingly. Existing members are also enthusiastic ambassadors of the ULCC ethos. They are always encouraged and sometimes incentivized to sponsor new members.

The members of the ULCC are successful and accomplished; many are powerful and unapologetically affluent. This is not surprising—as befits a prestigious club, the ULCC is an elite group. But there is another side to this coin, one that the private club world doesn’t always communicate as well as it could. The club world can and often does provide a platform for members that is fundamentally responsible and public minded. The ULCC embodies this tradition of service that works intelligently, effectively and continuously to establish a wide channel connecting private accomplishment with community service.

Club Trends Fall 2014