As today’s young workers and entrepreneurs age into new roles of influence in the Milwaukee area and some of the city’s most committed and respected philanthropic leaders age out of theirs, a question emerges: Who will lead the next generation of donors in Milwaukee?
Some younger individuals in the local business community are rolling up their sleeves for local causes.
The Wright Brothers
Charlie Wright, 30, with the help of his younger brother, Andrew, 28, and his father, Charles, Sr., in 2011 started the Wright Brothers Fund through the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, which gives grants to organizations supporting environmental education initiatives.
This year, the fund awarded grants to the Urban Ecology Center, a Hunger Task Force urban farming initiative and Rock the Green, an annual Milwaukee music festival held to raise awareness of environmental issues.
Wright is the plant superintendent of Rheocast Co., a brass and aluminum die castings manufacturer in Germantown. It’s a division of Fall River Group, which his grandfather started in 1954. Fall River Group owns three subsidiaries: Rheocast, Fall River Manufacturing on Milwaukee’s south side and Fall River Foundry in Fall River.
Though Wright didn’t know for certain whether he’d end up working at the family company, he said he was always fascinated by the foundry and manufacturing plants as a kid. After he graduated from Boston College in 2008, Wright moved back to Wisconsin to get acquainted with different aspects of the business and slowly began working his way through the ranks of the company.
But even as he focused on building his career in manufacturing, he began to lay the roots of a separate philanthropic career.
When he was attending high school in the early 2000s, Wright was inspired by his father’s and great uncle’s involvement with Goodwill Industries, and decided to start volunteering with the organization himself.
“I reached out to my contacts in Milwaukee and said, ‘Hey, I’m out (near) Madison. Could you hook me up with somebody out here?’ So they put me in touch with their office out there,” Wright said. “It just so happened at that time, they were looking to bring on a young person onto their board of the Madison Goodwill. I thought I was going to just be volunteering on weekends and helping out at donation centers. That’s kind of what I envisioned, but I was presented with this great opportunity and I took it.”
At the age of 22, Wright became a member of the Madison Goodwill’s board, where he learned how charitable organizations think strategically about their decisions and approach problems.
After a few years, he and his father began discussing setting up a family foundation to support philanthropic initiatives.
“We were doing some research on what it would take to do that; how do you set it up legally and what sort of administrative stuff you’ve got to do,” he said. “We reached out to the Greater Milwaukee Foundation with that very question. They help administer a foundation or a fund, but you don’t have to do any of the work, set up any of the administrative stuff. They’ve got it all set up, so you donate to them and they set up the fund and for a fee they run it for you. So that was very appealing at the time.”
Though the three each pooled money to start the fund, both Andrew and Wright’s father have since moved away — Charles, Sr. is now retired and living in Florida, and Andrew is studying chiropractic medicine in Georgia.
Now Wright is in charge of the fund, in addition to his roles on the board of Goodwill Industries of Southeastern Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Public Museum board of directors.
It’s a lot of responsibility to juggle for a young manager building his career. But Wright said he feels it’s his obligation to get involved.
“I’ve been provided with a lot of opportunities and I feel like I want to give back to the community that’s given me those opportunities,” Wright said.
John and Patty Mueller, both 53, had been planning on establishing their own fund for years, ever since Patty started showing John the annual and quarterly statements from a charitable fund she advised that her father started years ago.
“My father was one of a few employees or retirees that donated Journal Communications stock to create the Journal Foundation at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation,” Patty said. “What’s been really compelling is seeing his initial gift grow fourfold and his grants grow threefold. My husband would see that. I would show him the annual and quarterly statements and he would say, ‘You know, we should do something like that.’”
Eventually, they did.
The Muellers founded a company called Idea Factory Inc. in Menomonee Falls in 1994 after John developed a plug-in valve device that makes shower cleaning easier, called Rinse Ace Power Sprayer. Eventually the company, which had 10 employees when it was sold to New Jersey-based Ginsey Home Solutions in 2014, began making a variety of bath, shower, oral health care and dog washing products for retailers across the country.
Now, two years after selling their company, the Muellers are retired. And over the past two years, in addition to becoming active travelers, they’ve become active volunteers and philanthropists.
“We both grew up in great families and had certain privileges,” Patty said. “We know how good we had it growing up, so giving back is important to us. It’s also a little bit steeped in faith, as well.”
So far, they’ve identified three organizations of choice for the fund they established through the GMF: Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, The Humane Animal Welfare Society in Waukesha and St. John’s Military Academy in Delafield, where John attended high school.
Patty also volunteers at the Sojourner Family Peace Center, and each summer the couple gets involved with the Boys & Girls Clubs’ Camp Whitcomb Mason on the shores of Lake Keesus near the Town of Merton, northwest of Milwaukee. The Muellers live on Lake Keesus and help out each year by taking the kids tubing on the lake and volunteering at camp.
“Disadvantaged youth, humane care for animals, education and domestic violence prevention – those are things that we are involved with,” Patty said.
But in addition to getting involved to address specific issues in Milwaukee, Patty also sees it as her mission to recruit other small business owners or executives at large corporations in town to become philanthropists themselves.
“Bigger picture, I believe there is a lot of wealth in small business owners, and I believe the GMF, or really any community foundation, needs to be able to tap more of the small business owners and let them know they exist,” Patty said. “All these small business owners can establish funds and create a bigger impact in our community. Together we can have a significant impact. There are a lot of challenges here in Milwaukee with our poverty and our education system. But there’s also plenty of quiet philanthropists in Milwaukee. I’m sure of it.”