Helen Zell

Executive Director, Zell Family Foundation




About Helen Zell

Vice Chairman 

Helen Zell is the Executive Director of the Zell Family Foundation. She is an active philanthropist and thought leader in the arts and education, with an emphasis on music, literature and visual arts.

Helen is the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association.  She is also a member of the Board of Trustees of Steppenwolf Theatre and serves on the executive committee.  Helen is a Trustee, and former Chair, of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. She also serves on the boards of directors of: the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a public-public partnership dedicated to the healthy development of at-risk children; the Chicago Public Education Fund, a nonprofit organization working to improve public education in the city; and Teach for America, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting educational equity and excellence for children in low-income communities.  Helen is also a member of the Photography Committee at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Helen’s lifelong passion for great literature and commitment to her alma mater are reflected in her advocacy of the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. The Zell Family Foundation provides significant ongoing support for the university’s Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree program in Creative Writing, now known as the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, which is a two-year graduate program in creative writing with a concentration in either fiction or poetry. The program also provides each student with the opportunity for a “Zellowship,” a post-graduate year of financial support that enables writers to dedicate their time solely to writing. As part of the program, the foundation endowed the Zell Visiting Writers Series. It also endowed the department’s first visiting professorship in fiction, later named the Nicholas Delbanco Visiting Professorship, and the Helen Zell Director’s Fund for the MFA program in Creative Writing. The program is recognized internationally for its excellence and regularly produces award-winning authors.

Helen also has a long history of supporting the arts and education in Chicago as well. Among numerous other initiatives, she led the Zell Family Foundation’s underwriting of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s music director position in perpetuity, now known as the Zell Music Director.

Helen’s resume includes a broad range of professional experiences including: editor of journals published by the American Society for Microbiology; project director and acquisitions editor for Science Research Associates, Inc.; and general manager for the Chicago String Ensemble. Later in her career, Helen also owned an interior design firm.

She holds a bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature, and an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the University of Michigan.