Philanthropic shift underway in Madison

Madison has long leaned on philanthropy. When John Nolen had a vision of a city built on an isthmus, it was a small group of philanthropists led by John M. Olin who ponied up the $2,500 to publish the unique architectural plan. Since then, nearly everything people love about Madison has been built at least in some part, brick by etched brick, by the generosity of individual donors, foundations, faith communities, university alumni, civic officials, business groups and passionate families—and we’re not just talking about beautiful buildings and parks.

To every new need, a fresh response has risen—and Dane County now has one of the highest concentrations of nonprofits in the country, with more than 2,500 registered 501(c)(3)s, up from 2,000 in 2014. Those nonprofits are supported by community-funded umbrella organizations that act as conduits between donors and the gritty, hands-on work. The United Way of Dane County depends on corporate giving and community donations to help fund $20 million a year in basic needs programming that targets homelessness, poverty and health care for the most vulnerable among us. Community Shares exists to help its 70 environmental and social justice nonprofit members band together to advocate for grassroots support that benefits all citizens. When Madison Community Foundation was created in 1942 with $400,000 in donations, it wasn’t to build an arts center or library—it was because resident philanthropists wanted to help troops returning home from World War II. Then, the federal government stepped in with the GI Bill, and MCF pivoted to address other concerns in the community—and they’ve been pivoting ever since. In the past 25 years alone, MCF has distributed more than $200 million to nonprofits in Dane County.

But there’s a philanthropic shift underway in Madison, blown in by the winds of changing needs and a deepening understanding of the city’s shortcomings. Madison has long been a great place to live for so many people, but in recent years—due in large part to the work of many of the nonprofits supported by local philanthropists—the city has come to acknowledge that it’s not so great for everyone.

The weighty achievement gaps and racial disparities—75 percent of African American children in Dane County live in poverty; 50 percent of Madison Metropolitan School District students qualify for free or reduced lunch; 86 percent of African American third-grade students are not proficient in reading—are too glaring to be ignored and too heavy for taxpayer systems to carry alone. Historically, this is where philanthropy comes in; but the old way of relying on key private and corporate donors is no longer enough.

It’s hard to imagine where this city would be without its Frautschis, Goodmans, Rennebohms and Rowlands—not to mention its foundations established by Madison Gas and Electric, American Family Insurance and CUNA Mutual—but modern philanthropy must be more diverse and democratic. The future of Madison giving, and the solution to its disparities, depends not only on average, everyday givers, but on economic empowerment for its most vulnerable residents so that they, too, can help shape this city. Philanthropists give because they believe their contributions have the power to strengthen a community from the ground up and the opportunity to center the city’s most marginalized residents—not for the sake of altruism, but because everyone’s quality of life is interdependent.

The Power of Philanthropy

“The word philanthropy, if you break it down, means ‘love humankind,’” says United Way CEO Renee Moe. In 2016, Moe, known as a bridge builder, stepped into the role after the retirement of Leslie Howard, who shaped UWDC into one of the most successful chapters in the country during her 34-year term. Recently, key corporate philanthropic leaders Gary Wolter of MGE and Steve Goldberg of CUNA Mutual Foundation also announced their retirements, but the equity-focused work all three championed has become integral, almost commonplace, for the people and initiatives in their wake. It’s unlikely today to find a successful company that doesn’t have a culture of giving built into its core values, particularly within Madison’s thriving startup, networking, co-working and incubator spaces. Volunteer work days and employee-matched fundraising are the rule, not the exception, and most of Dane County’s workforce expects its employers to pump philanthropic dollars back into the community. 

“When you think about the power of philanthropy and what that means for us as interconnected people and systems and communities, very simply, all of us humans want to feel connected and like we belong,” says Moe. “We want to have a sense of fairness and ability to be healthy and to thrive.”

Viewed with an even wider lens, the U.S. itself was built on philanthropy, from the Carnegies to the Rockefellers. But it was also built on slavery, colonization and strategic oppression. Madison’s tale of two cities is paralleled in the larger, cracked mirror of two countries, and its challenge lies in reconciling its own reflection. Today’s most effective nonprofits have attempted to right institutional wrongs and are continuing to build the programs, parks, gardens, arts facilities, libraries and schools that make the city so inviting, while simultaneously working to make them accessible to all. And modern donors want to fund those efforts in efficient, thoughtful, targeted ways. 

“We’re as strong as the community makes us, and if we’re the best-kept secret, we’re not as strong as we could be.” –Bob Sorge

“It’s become really apparent to me that with all of our really good efforts and strong minds and caring people, we’re just not getting enough accomplished. We’re not getting to scale for what our community is needing,” says Findorff chairman Rich Lynch, a longtime philanthropic business leader who serves as chairman of the UWDC board. With so many nonprofits doing important work, it’s clear this community has both the resources and the desire—but the issues and disparities remain. If we could ask our most potent nonprofits to tackle our biggest collective threat—poverty, says Lynch, solved by jobs, affordable housing and accessible early child care—could we finally move the needle on disparities? “I think the community is saying,” says Lynch, “tell us where our dollars can make the biggest difference.”

How do we best collaborate, streamline and pool our resources so philanthropists can have the most effective collective impact? How do we harness greater Madison’s legacy of philanthropy and the full impact of its tireless nonprofits to solve poverty and equity once and for all? How do we create sustainable, permanent, authentic change and, as organizers asked a packed crowd at the Monona Terrace for A Fund for Women’s annual event in November—one that focused on economic empowerment for underserved women and girls—“What does Madison look like where everybody wins?”

The Layout of Local Giving

For the past 75 years, MCF has served as both a funder and a think tank for the Dane County community, partnering with and convening businesses and civic leaders, nonprofits, municipalities, individuals and families throughout the years. It’s done so quietly, behind the scenes—a permanent resource for the common good. But if that’s MCF’s greatest asset, it may also be the reason many would-be philanthropists still don’t know exactly how MCF works, or the impact they, as community members, could have. 

“We’re as strong as the community makes us,” says MCF president Bob Sorge. “And if we’re the best-kept secret, we’re not as strong as we could be.”

MCF grants have long been—quietly and powerfully—everywhere. So many of the buildings and activities people think of when they tell their out-of-state friends, family and business recruits about Madison’s attractive quality of life were helped along by MCF grants. They range from the $1 million starting gift that finally woke the Monona Terrace project from its 40-year coma to the 63 nonprofits that received modest to significant Community Impact fund grants in 2015 alone, including the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, Centro Hispano, Children’s Dyslexia Center, Clean Wisconsin, Community Shares, Dane County Library Service, Driftless Area Land Conservancy, Nehemiah Community Development Corporation, Urban League of Greater Madison and Verona Area Needs Network. Many of those same nonprofits hold funds at MCF to sustain their organizations in perpetuity, allowing future executives to draw on money their forebears invested to meet needs that didn’t yet exist—a sort of philanthropic time travel.

Take MCF’s Community Impact Fund, for example. The Community Impact Fund is the largest of more than 1,000 funds held at MCF, accounting for nearly $2 million of MCF’s $10 million annual distributions. It is open to donations from everyone; each throws money in to the pot and leaves it to simmer forever. The more money in the pot, the more we’ve got to spend in the community—and it will always be there, funding needs as yet unknown. The fund started in 1991, when a woman named Marie Graber died and left $15 million to MCF. She did not yet know about Monona Terrace. She’d never heard of the Overture Center for the Arts or Madison Public Library’s Central Library, she would never see the new Boys and Girls Club of Dane County or the Madison Children’s Museum. She would never read the Race to Equity Report, or hear about the lack of affordable housing or the environmental threats to area lakes and parks—nor would she know about the innovative initiatives born in response. But she’d help fund all of it.

“I always say she’s funded everything from Agrace to the zoo,” says Tom Linfield, MCF’s vice president of community impact. Twenty-six years later, Graber’s original $15 million gift has not only translated into nearly $24 million in grants, the original value of the grant has been maintained. Similarly, MCF as a whole manages $160 million in assets to distribute $10 million in grants each year. If UWDC is essentially a checking account that zeroes out each year, MCF is more like a clearinghouse of potent savings accounts, sustainable and long-term, and the Community Impact Fund is its most nimble. That flexibility and permanence are the meat of the model: You don’t have to know what the next big solution will be, you only have to want the best for your hometown and trust that the stewards of your money do, too. 

“We don’t know what the future brings, but we do know that we’ll need resources to address it,” says Sorge. “Community foundations were really created to democratize philanthropy. Whether you’ve got a million dollars or you’ve got a hundred bucks, you can leave a legacy for a community you love by working through the community foundation.”

Linfield puts it like this: “The word philanthropist makes you think of Rockefeller throwing dimes out the limousine window, but I’m a philanthropist.”

Besides, he says, philanthropy isn’t just about giving money. “It’s about giving counsel, inspiring people, bringing people together.” 

The Most Pressing Issues

MCF wrapped up 2016 with a year of grant giving more sharply focused than ever before on solving Madison’s disparities. While the 71 grants totaling $1.8 million awarded by its Community Impact Fund and Field of Interest funds went to dozens of dynamic arts and environmental initiatives, most of the highest allotments were distributed to equity-focused initiatives, including $50,000 to Madison365, which trains youth journalists of color and centers communities of color in the media; $50,000 to the Overture Center for the Arts to hire a director of diversity and inclusion; $41,356 to YWCA Madison for a restorative justice initiative partnership with the Madison Police Department; $50,000 to Literacy Network’s new facility; $50,000 to Operation Fresh Start to train disconnected youth; and $50,000 to double the size of the Vera Court Neighborhood Center. Additionally, in 2015, MCF awarded a three-year, $300,000 grant to Madison Metropolitan School District’s effort to turn Leopold and Mendota elementary schools into community schools, which aim to engage families struggling with poverty, food insecurity and unemployment. Starting in May, to celebrate its 75th anniversary, MCF plans to commit an additional $900,000 in special grants announced in a major gift every month. Most important to note is that all of this is made possible not only by wealthy donors naming MCF as a beneficiary in their wills or estate plans, but by gifts large and small over the decades from people who love Madison. 

In this new year, MCF will fund nonprofits to produce a variety of projects and programs that reflect the unique, natural and cultural assets in the community. With MCF’s bird’s-eye overview of all of Madison’s nonprofits, philanthropists and pressing issues—“They’re so focused on their own tree,” says Linfield, “but we can see the forest”—MCF feels getting the right people together at the right time with the right amount of money could unlock untold doors. MCF hopes to continue to harness the power of collective impact to make every million dollars—and every single dollar—count. “Think about it,” says Linfield. “If 75 years ago we had $400,000, and today we have $160 million, so it’s 400 times larger—what will [Madison] look like when we’re 400 times larger [again]?” 

As United Way’s Moe puts it, “Where your life goes, so goes mine,” she says. Quality of life is about so much more than basic needs like income, education and health. It’s about how we treat each other, how we engage with one another, and the connectivity within our communities. “How our fates are intertwined and how we can truly learn and grow and provide and receive from one another, and philanthropy can facilitate that.”

And what happens when you invest in people who need the resources most? “They give back,” says Moe. “And you change families for generations.”

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