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The philanthropic landscape has shifted over the past 25 years as giving trends have changed, corporate donors have fluctuated, and the community has rallied around different issues as new needs have emerged. BizTimes Milwaukee associate editor Lauren Anderson recently spoke with the president and CEO of United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County, Amy Lindner, and her predecessor in that role, Mary Lou Young, about how the nonprofit and philanthropy sector has evolved and where it’s headed.
What would you point to as catalyzing moments in philanthropy over the past 25 years?
Young: “In the late 1990s, United Way moved from giving general operations dollars to impact grants. That was a big change in the United Way system and I think a lot of that was the result of corporations doing similar things. They no longer were just arbitrarily giving away general operations grants to nonprofits but started to focus them. … There was also a shift where (for) B2B companies, shareholders started looking at their vendors and saying, ‘are they invested in the communities? Are they invested wisely and why?’ Versus, ‘why are you spending our money on community philanthropy?’ That was a major shift around that period of time, we’re talking 1995 to 2005.”
What caused that shift?
Lindner: “I have a theory. … My thinking on what was the big shift in the last 25 years is really the democratization of who gets access to information. … There was a time when, if you wanted to give to your community, the legwork of figuring out what nonprofits were there, who was doing a good job, who could actually point to results, that was tricky work. The United Way network was one of the gatekeepers of ‘we are the only (place that has) that information.’ But once everything started going on the internet, the problem now was on the other end of the spectrum – that anybody now could Google the issue they care about and find an organization somewhere that would support that (cause). Lots more people started to understand there are a lot of great places you could give to, and one of the trends is that people started giving in new and different and Go Fund Me sort of ways.”
Young: “Philanthropy, in my mind, when I first started working was about just doing the right thing. And there was a definite shift as leadership changed and became younger and a little more savvy to look at making investments in communities, anticipating returns and a lot of that, to Amy’s point, was employee-driven. It was individuals and the talent that they’re trying to attract that said ‘I want to work for a company that’s socially responsible,’ and that was not a conversation prior to 1995 that you had. Frankly, it would have been the kiss of death. You didn’t talk about that. That was something you did on your own time.”
How have changes in the corporate sector – like mergers and acquisitions, companies leaving or coming to the region – affected giving over the years?
Young: “We’re blessed in this community to have a culture of giving back. And United Way is blessed to have Fortune 500s so highly engaged. When Bucyrus sold to Caterpillar and M&I sold to BMO, that year of course we had anxiety about what does that mean? To be honest with you, it wasn’t even a bump in the road. There was such an intentional shift to ensure the acquirer was involved in the community, that … we actually grew in some of those markets. …. Certainly, with things like Bon-Ton, when it went bankrupt and left, that was a hiccup because they were a big United Way supporter and we couldn’t react fast enough to make up the difference on some of that.”
What needs to happen to engage the next generation of philanthropists and volunteers in Milwaukee?
Lindner: “I think we’re going to have to keep getting better at both delivering results and communicating the results and the existing needs in our community. When I say democratization of data, that sounds like a positive thing and I think it mostly is, but it’s also this tidal wave of data. So, I hope we can continue to earn the trust of the community … that if you need help navigating this space to know what’s most urgent, most important, you can trust that United Way is digging through that data to figure out what issues are rising to the top in terms of need in our community and how do we identify the single best strategies to work on that.”Young: “One of the challenges that current United Way leadership has … is balancing this bookend demographic. So simultaneously to engaging this future generation of philanthropists, (Lindner) is also meeting the needs of those who are no longer in the workplace. And I’d say the bulk of revenue for most nonprofits will continue to come from that demographic for the next 10 years so you can’t drop the ball there while you’re spending all your time and energy trying to engage the next generation.”
What lessons did you learn from tackling a big, challenging issue, like teen pregnancy, during your tenure?
Young: “At the time we had enough data supporting that teen birth was not only costing us in a health care perspective for the region, but it was (also) certainly the catalyst for why women in particular were not maturing into careers that supported our community. No one was working collectively to try to make needle-moving change. What we learned was a couple things: first, we did social change before it was a buzzword, or being a community convener, we didn’t really know we were doing that, we were just engaged. … I also realized you can’t really pull away from something you’ve invested in, because teen pregnancy will not go away. It’s diminished right now but if you take your eye off the ball, it will just continue to creep up. Like (United Way’s current) homelessness initiative, you have to put in place continual efforts that ensure, once you meet your goal, that you have another goal or continue to erode whatever it is that is making that such a community problem.”
What gives you optimism for the community over the next 25 years?
Young: “Young leadership. I’m really, really enthusiastic and elated to see the passion that our young leaders are bringing, not only to the nonprofit sector, but also to our corporate sector.”
Lindner: “I’m with Mary Lou, but I also want to pay credit to our history. Leaders before us fought harder fights with less data, and fewer tools and have shown we can do this. With what we’ve learned about what works, with how we’ve gotten better with data, with how we’ve gotten better at actually implementing data to influence choices going forward, with a group of people who care about our community as much as our young people do, the sky’s the limit. We’re going to solve big problems in this community.”