In putting community first, the road less traveled can mean more to gain

Ellen M. Gilligan
Ellen M. Gilligan

It is amazing what can grow from strong roots. The Greater Milwaukee Foundation wasn’t always known for its convening power, or its advocacy or even its strategic community investments. These are among the roles we have developed over a century as we adapted to meet the changing needs and expectations of the community, especially over the last 15 years.

Such reimagining is possible because of traits we have carried forward consistently since our founding, like our readiness to embrace leadership, our commitment to authentic relationships and our promise to serve with integrity, including adherence to our donors’ intent.

As a foundation today, we identify as a community leader, a trusted partner and a philanthropic steward. The values of giving on which we were established are always at our core. After all, philanthropy is a powerful vehicle for positive change, though we have also come to understand that generosity alone does not guarantee success or progress.

How we approach philanthropy is a significant factor in its impact. Transformational solutions to community issues often depend on taking the road less traveled so you can pave the way for new possibilities. 

In building a Milwaukee for all, we are intentional about prioritizing relationships over transactions, collaboration over solitary leadership and catalytic investment over siloed support, so we pursue systems change over short-term gains and measure success in generational terms rather than quarterly. This work often requires challenging norms, so we choose innovation over the status quo and center community voice over conventional power.

Trust in partnership brings tangible results

There is no mistaking our brand of community leadership and inclusive philanthropy, and nothing beats seeing the results of this approach firsthand.

If you drive north from downtown Milwaukee on Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, you can’t miss one of the most significant examples of trusted partnership that we’ve experienced taking physical form. I’ve shared the story of our ThriveOn Collaboration frequently, but it took on new meaning this month as our Foundation staff permanently moved into our new home in the ThriveOn King building in historic Bronzeville.

While we are thrilled to relocate to such a fresh space designed to meet our team’s needs and advance the Foundation’s work, the real excitement comes from our relationship with the neighborhood. Our continued economic investment in people and place is deeply enriched by this unprecedented opportunity to walk alongside community toward a shared vision of a thriving and equitable Milwaukee. 

The community-centered process that has defined the ThriveOn Collaboration fosters residents’ trust in both our intention and our conduct. The community allowed us to demonstrate that we would be good neighbors who listen without extracting benefit, who respect the heritage of a place synonymous with Milwaukee’s Black history and culture, who follow the community’s priorities and who are now conscientious stewards of this precious and iconic asset that we named ThriveOn King together. For the Foundation, being so directly ingrained in the community we serve not only reflects our values – it elevates our every capability.

Community leadership is a function of trust

Whether we are in a position to lead, collaborate or provide support, trust is the key ingredient.

More than 4,800 donors exhibited their faith in the Foundation’s responsible and responsive management of over $726 million in new resources through our recently concluded Greater Together Campaign. Many leaned into the vision of a Milwaukee for all and even increased their giving to make catalytic efforts like the ThriveOn Collaboration possible. We also began partnering with more donors of color who not only saw themselves in philanthropy for the first time but saw the Greater Milwaukee Foundation as their foundation.

The evidence doesn’t stop there.

Our support for and participation in the Community Development Alliance has helped its collective strategic housing plan gain traction in both public and private sectors. The level of citywide coordination and motivation to provide access to affordable and desirable housing to all of Milwaukee is reaching new heights today.

Meanwhile, parents, providers, nonprofits and even employers view the Foundation and Milwaukee Succeeds as essential partners in advocating in a unified voice for a stronger, more equitable early childhood education sector in Wisconsin. As our work together has increased understanding of early education’s critical role in both child development and our state’s economy, we grow closer to the long-term solutions our community needs.

Every one of these issues is connected by the opportunity to partner with the Foundation for investment, collaboration and a voice at the table. Every success we experience is connected by the vision of our donors to convert their generosity into impact through Foundation.

Trust is earned. Leadership is conferred. Now and in the future, our community can count on us to be the partner whose strategies adapt with the times but whose values never vary.

Ellen M. Gilligan
President & CEO
Greater Milwaukee Foundation

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