TOCQUEVILLE SPOTLIGHT: Reflections from John Lechleiter

John Lechleiter, Ph.D., may be best known as CEO of Eli Lilly and Company, a global, Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company based in Indianapolis. But his philanthropic efforts, along with his wife, Sarah, will have ripple effects around the world for generations. We sat down with John, who recently retired – from Lilly and as board chairman for United Way Worldwide – to get his thoughts on giving back.


Giving back was part of family tradition, reinforced at Lilly.

I was the oldest on nine in a three-bedroom house in Louisville. We were raised to be conscious of the fact that many others around our city and around the world are not as fortunate. My parents imbued in us a sense of responsibility for our neighbors, and I hope Sarah and I have imbued that in our children as well. Interestingly, my mother, who is about to be 89, lives on her own and still volunteers for Meals on Wheels.

When I came to Lilly in 1979, I quickly learned that philanthropy was part of the Lilly family culture and, as an extension, the company’s culture. The Lilly Family recognized that we can collectively be a force for good.

I saw this put into action in our partnership with United Way. I got involved with United Way early in my career, and it’s allowed me to feel like I’m part of something bigger than myself. While I was CEO, we deepened our partnership, well beyond charitable giving alone. Now we’re focused on having the greatest impact, in Indianapolis and several countries around the world.


Sarah and John Lechleiter
Sarah and John Lechleiter

How he and Sarah focus their giving.

Sarah and I have always felt it’s important to support our church. In addition, we’ve focused our giving on key issues: education, strengthening our community and the arts. In recent years, the community piece has become increasingly important for us. As CEO of Lilly, I had a better view of the problems facing our community and people around the world – and a greater sense of responsibility for doing something about it.


That’s what motivated us to make a larger gift to United Way, $5million from us with a $5 million match from the Lilly Foundation. A good portion of that gift was dedicated to education for children from low-income families. Education is the start of any good life. We have to create the right opportunities for every kid to have a good education starting with high-quality pre-K. We also have to create an environment where kids can take that education and find decent, meaningful jobs and build good lives for their own children.


How he and Sarah decide how and where to get involved.

When we look at organizations and decide how to get involved, we first look at, what’s the cause? Then we ask, how effective is this organization in addressing the cause – what impact are they having or can they make? Then, are they able to objectively measure the results and move the needle on key challenges?


United Way has done a great job of shifting its focus to a strategic impact model, and that’s why we so enthusiastically support them. They are measuring themselves against meaningful key indicators that show if they are making progress, such as the number of third-grade children reading at grade level and graduation rates.


John’s and Sarah’s evolution of giving.

Earlier in our lives, we took a peanut butter approach – spreading out a lot of smaller gifts to smaller organizations. In recent years, Sarah and I have been thinking about how to have greater impact with larger gifts. That, of course, means you can’t say “yes” to everything. But this approach gives you the opportunity to get more deeply involved with select organizations and to have more of a voice on issues that matter most to you.


Advice for other Tocqueville donors.

When Sarah and I agreed to step up to the Tocqueville level, it was a big step for us at the time. But I’ve always felt it was important to be part of a group of people that have come together and said, with a large gift, we can have a big impact. Tocqueville-level giving is really the foundation on which United Way is built.

As Tocqueville members, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves on the issues facing our communities and advocate for solutions. We need to see ourselves as evangelists and share our level of enthusiasm with others, with the goal of getting them to join at this level, too.

Special thanks to David Marbaugh, Communications Director for Eli Lilly, for submitting this article.