A Journey in
Racial Equity and Inclusion

The Greater Milwaukee Foundation is Wisconsin’s largest community foundation and since 1915, has partnered with generous donors to strengthen the region in every way imaginable. Over these many years, the Foundation has grown along with the community it serves, expanding on its founding purpose as a philanthropic resource to encompass a broader role of community leadership, strategic investment and advocacy. Now more than ever, it is critical for the Foundation to use its broad range of resources—financial, human—as well as its knowledge, expertise, influence and relationships to address urgent needs and pursue the lasting health and vibrancy of greater Milwaukee.

Our early contributions and successes set the course, yet we also understand our region’s systems continue to grow in their inequity and outcomes for communities of color. As we build a fuller understanding and commitment to overcoming our region’s challenges, we are guided by our north star of racial equity and inclusion toward a shared vision of building A Milwaukee for All.

Our journey in racial equity over the last 20 years has been one of learning, collaboration and action, both inside and out.

Early Work: 2000-2010
Institutional Growth in Awareness

The first decade of the millennium brought a shift in the Foundation’s mindset toward a more visible leadership role in the community. We began building our capacity to move beyond grantmaking alone and incorporate complementary capabilities, such as convening, advocacy, research and donor co-investment to make an impact on the community’s most pressing problems. Understanding that issues of concentrated poverty, poor educational outcomes, declining property values, racial segregation and diminished opportunity for people of color in the region cannot be addressed by any one organization, the Foundation started taking a more holistic view toward solutions that included bringing community together around common goals. Our early initiatives embodied our core instincts toward racial equity and laid the groundwork for many of the strategies and tactics we employ today.

2000

Staff training and educational opportunities address white privilege, racial inequality and other topics to better understand how race intersects across the work of the Foundation.

2000

The James and Reopa Brown Fund becomes the first Foundation fund established by donors of color in the new millennium, joining other impactful efforts led by Black and Brown philanthropists and communities during the previous three decades – including the Wilbur and Ardie A. Halyard Fund (1974), the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Fund (1976), the Victor Vega Educational Fund (1984) and the High Point Fund (1997) – supporting scholarships, youth-serving nonprofits, the arts and more.

2006

Our Healthy Neighborhood Initiative becomes an important platform to collaborate with community leadership and dialogue with residents most directly impacted by grants. 

2006

The MOSAIC program experiments in kick-starting diversity and inclusion, intentionally matching Milwaukeeans across divided communities to create connections and grow networks. 

2010

Interest and effort accelerate around adding more valued perspectives to our Board of Directors, inclusive of race, ethnicity and gender, and we begin using our voice and influence to urge and require our grantees to diversify their own boards.

2010

Our Board approves four impact areas for grant-making, including advancing Racial Equity and Inclusion.

Big Takeaway:

The Foundation took key steps toward increasing the tools in its philanthropic toolbox for deeper community impact, including emphasizing a more issues-focused approach to grantmaking while adding its own diagnoses of what the community needs. At this time, the focus was organized more closely around poverty and had yet to fully center language around race and racism.

Leaning In: 2010-2019
Deepening Leadership and Commitment

The next 10 years were critical for accelerating the Foundation’s learning, development and initial actions aligned with a growing focus on addressing racial disparities. While our institution was built for many things, rapid change was not one of them, so the Foundation steadily established the groundwork during this decade that would allow us to weave our commitment to racial equity and inclusion throughout the organization. Our Board leadership through the years has been instrumental in our ability to move in this direction, and we owe a debt of gratitude to our first Board Chair of color, Edith N. Finlayson (joined Board in 1972), and those who followed as Chair including Gwen T. Jackson (joined 1982), José Olivieri (joined 1994), John W. Daniels Jr. (joined 2004), Cory L. Nettles (joined 2012) and, today, Jacqueline Herd-Barber (joined 2010), as well as their diverse colleagues who have led and supported the work through the years.

2010

Our progress toward racial equity and inclusion is accelerated when Ellen Gilligan joins the Foundation as president and CEO. Her leadership puts these issues front and center, beginning a realignment of institutional priorities.

2011

The Board approves new strategic leadership areas, including the promotion of racial equity and inclusion. This marks a major shift away from “diversity” as the primary solution to racial disparity, toward a framework that acknowledges embedded racial bias across our region’s systems.

2011

We launch our communitywide partnership Milwaukee Succeeds, as a way to unite the community around bringing lasting change to the way education works for children in Milwaukee and a common goal of success for every kid in every school.

2013

Our Board forms a task force and later a committee of the Board dedicated to racial equity and inclusion, a move that would soon reverberate across our entire institution.

2013

We first commission the research report Vital Signs: Benchmarking Metro Milwaukee, which shows how our region compares to 15 other metro areas across a variety of quality-of-life indicators. The report is reprised and updated in 2015 and 2017, the latter of which begins disaggregating data by race and ethnicity where available to serve as a more effective tool in addressing the region’s stark racial disparities.

2014

We hire consultants Gilbert & Associates to provide a critical outside perspective and ensure we are beginning to apply a racial equity lens appropriately and effectively across the organization. Both personal and professional development are emphasized, and staff discussions about equity become more frequent. While the majority of staff support the REI framework, and many offer leadership, it is also clear that there is inconsistent understanding of the root causes of inequity and the ways inequity and racism are perpetuated.

2014

We pool resources through the Community Development Alliance to launch the Community Connections Small Grants Program, a participatory grantmaking process that continues to be inclusive of residents making recommendations and decisions on grants.

2015

As part of our centennial celebration, we provide free and special access to cultural institutions, unique experiences and services through our Gifts to the Community program, which includes intentional focus on opportunities for people and families of color to participate and feel welcome.

2015

We award $1.2 million in our first set of grants explicitly focused on advancing racial equity. The unique request for proposals leads to a group of exciting projects across the Milwaukee community, stimulating new collaborations and innovative ideas.

2015

Ken Robertson is hired as our first African American chief financial officer. He goes on to become our first ever executive vice president, chief operating officer and chief financial officer in 2020.

2016

Our Board approves a generational commitment to Racial Equity and Inclusion that would impact all the work of our institution.

2016

We commission Latino Milwaukee: A Statistical Portrait, an unprecedented study to understand the demographics and conditions of Milwaukee’s burgeoning Latino community.

2016

We engage the Public Equity Group to develop a racial equity framework, resulting in shifts in the Foundation’s program areas, grant-making, convening, advocacy, communications, and operations. Fundamental to this commitment is employing culturally responsive practice by inviting people to be at the center of decisions that affect them and ensuring their ability to participate in designing, building and implementing specific strategies to address the conditions or systems they seek to change.

2016

We launch the Reasons for Hope Fund and establish a Community Advisory Council with neighborhood leadership in response to unrest in Sherman Park, beginning the early stages of systemic improvement and change that advances our community-centered racial equity and inclusion work.

2017

We launch On the Table MKE as a platform for regionwide dialogue and change. The annual event is a venue for communities to address a wide range of topics, with race and racism being a part of most conversations. The energy from the first year leads to micro grants to help On the Table MKE participants turn their ideas into action.

2018

We introduce Connected People and Thriving Communities, grant-making strategies developed by our staff and community partners. Connected People invests in a foundation for the future, connecting the spectrum of youth to community, education and employment opportunities while Thriving Communities supports neighborhoods that make up the city and broader community in becoming healthy, economically thriving places.

2019

We make a commitment to increase racial diversity among the investment managers working with the GMF Investment Pool, with the understanding that success in a diversified portfolio is far more likely when inclusive of talented people with different life experiences.

2019

Upon expanding the invitation and opportunity for donors – where their interests and passions align – to consider including racial equity and inclusion in the purpose and final purpose of their gift agreements, we see an increase in the number of donors making such commitments. Moreover, representation by members of color in our Young Professional Adviser Council grows from 12.5% to over 50% today as we intentionally deepen connections with young professional advisers who may refer clients or others from their networks.

Big Takeaway:

While the Foundation celebrated incremental gains, the greater goal was to eliminate the compartmentalization of racial equity and inclusion efforts. Our growing commitment to partnership at all levels, listening and working alongside community, and bringing diverse people and sectors together around shared priorities demonstrated where we were learning to embody – rather than merely hold – our values. Yet, we could see that to make the progress our community called for, we need to do more and be more. We had to change the fabric of our institution.

The Opportunity Ahead: 2020-2024
Embedding the Work

With our commitment to racial equity and inclusion firmly established, the Foundation is now working to live its values to the fullest. Our new strategic vision is of A Milwaukee for All, and to achieve that aim, we must work together to Reimagine Philanthropy, Recenter Communities and Remake Systems. This is not the work of one organization alone, so we are walking side by side with donors, with community, with civic leaders, and with everyone who shares the goal of an equitable, thriving region.

With racial equity and inclusion still shining brightly as our north star, we are beginning this next era of our journey by adopting a new, five-year strategic plan focused on:

  • Growing resources for strategic impact
  • Systems change informed by community priorities
  • Internal culture that is equitable and inclusive at every level
  • Trusted partnerships advancing racial equity and inclusion

As the Foundation continues this journey, we are proud of what we have accomplished together, yet still aware of the significant work yet to be done. We are ready to transform—not tweak—how we work and what that work makes possible—and we are calling on our entire community to join us in this generational undertaking.

A Milwaukee for all takes all of Milwaukee.>>