Siebert Lutheran Foundation uses auction-style funding model to match donors with the right causes

Paul Miles, president of We Raise Foundation; Avana Kelly, a St. Marcus 8th grade graduate; Donte Edwards a St. Marcus 8th grade graduate; Ronna Kelly, a St. Marcus Scholar; and Charlotte John-Gomez, president of Siebert Lutheran Foundation. 

The Milwaukee-based Siebert Lutheran Foundation has developed a new auction-style funding model to connect local philanthropists with causes that matter to them.

Recently, the foundation, which stewards the legacy of Milwaukee Electric Tool Co. founder Albert F. Siebert, has begun accepting donations for the first time. Up until three ago, all of the foundation’s resources have come from Siebert, who died in 1960.

It’s operated as an independent foundation under a trust agreement since 1976, granting roughly $135 million to date to support causes related to education, Lutheran ministry and leadership and poverty alleviation. Albert Siebert didn’t specify a sunset date for the foundation, and directors decided to continue it in perpetuity, which has meant courting new funders in recent years.

“Our board said, ‘We have such depth of experience working in the Lutheran community, and we have this bird’s-eye view of the really good work that the Lutheran organizations are doing. Why don’t we see if we can find other people who have similar passions and interests so we can do more?” said Charlotte John-Gómez, president of the foundation.

As part of that effort, Siebert launched a new strategy in 2020, called its Collaborators’ Event, which aims to pair philanthropists with likeminded organizations.

Patterned after a similar event developed by the Arizona Community Foundation of Flagstaff, the event allows donors to review organizations and projects in need of funding before attending an auction-style event that matches them together. Siebert staff flew out to Flagstaff a few years ago to watch the funding model in action.

“There were about 12 entities (including individual donors, families and other foundations) sitting around this table, and they had a big spreadsheet on the wall … and they just went around the room and said ‘OK, who wants to fund this organization?’ And donors out loud said ‘I’ll fund that for $100,000.’ By the end of two hours, they had raised over $2 million. And we were just blown away by that kind of a model,” John-Gómez said.

Siebert hosted its inaugural Collaborators’ Event in 2020, held virtually because of the pandemic, and raised over $130,000. It recently held its second annual event under a hybrid format and raised over $172,000, with 27 donors participating.

Both years, the foundation matched those dollars with $100,000 of its own.

“It’s a way to bring people who have like visions together. They have resources, and they want to share their resources with the community, but they might not know about the various organizations, especially the smaller organizations that are doing such good work,” John-Gómez said. “This was a way to introduce them to these organizations.”

All of the foundation’s board members – which include local executives Thomas Kammerait of von Briesen, retired UWM vice chancellor Joan Prince and Froedtert Heath CEO Cathy Jacobsen – participated in the event, John-Gómez said.

The event has also drawn entire families, who participated virtually from across the country.

“We had one family that was scattered across the nation, but they were still able to participate via Zoom and chat each other and make decisions as a family where they wanted their philanthropic dollars to go. It was a really neat way to help the next generation learn about what this means to give back to the community,” she said.

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Lauren Anderson is an associate editor and covers health care, nonprofits and education for BizTimes. Lauren previously reported on education for the Waukesha Freeman. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied journalism.

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