From relief to recovery – we lead together with collaboration, innovation

As history continues to unfold before our eyes, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation is drawing on our own deep history to help lead our community through a crisis of epic human and economic consequence. The Foundation was engineered to meet the changing needs of our region, and when faced with the sudden challenge of COVID-19, we adapted for action like never before.

We all feel the vast consequences of this pandemic – the tragic loss of life among families, friends and neighbors; the constant threat of illness the virus presents; the breathtaking toll on our economy; the loss of jobs, of social interaction, of the quality of life we cherish; plus the stress and fear these many burdens create. Yet, even in a struggle this universal, we clearly see how systemic racism and segregation cause communities of color among us to suffer a grossly uneven share of sickness and death from COVID-19. Black residents, for example, comprise 6 percent of Wisconsin’s population but have borne 25 percent of the state’s cases and 39 percent of related deaths.

Inadequate access to health care, safe and stable housing, healthy food, ample income and other resources have predisposed people of color to additional health risks for generations. Prioritizing racial equity in our community’s response to COVID-19 is a matter of life and death. In truth, advancing equity has been key to unlocking broad prosperity in our region all along. That is why our approach now must address both the critical needs of the moment and strategies for a long-term recovery that benefits everyone.

Communitywide coordination leads to unprecedented impact

The Foundation’s response to the coronavirus was swift and multi-faceted from the start, marshaling the resources, expertise and partnerships necessary to offer rapid relief and hasten greater Milwaukee’s return to thriving conditions. We are using traditional philanthropic tools in new ways and contributing to innovations that will serve our community for years to come.

The centerpiece of these efforts is the MKE Civic Response Team. In our role as convener, the Foundation organized and now helps lead this dynamic, cross-sector coalition dedicated to identifying the community’s greatest needs, aligning financial, material and human resources, and coordinating relief efforts in the most efficient and effective ways possible.

With shared purpose, the Team is solving acute community challenges in physical health, mental health, housing/shelter, food, early childhood education, K-12 schools and economic recovery. Yet, the ultimate value of this collective extends far beyond crisis response. The outbreak has revealed the cracks in our societal systems. By repairing and replacing these biased, broken and inefficient systems, bit by bit, the Team is crafting a new civic infrastructure for the long term that prioritizes equity and improves results. 

We see this nimble ingenuity in the way government, nonprofits and businesses have worked together to provide housing in residence halls and hotels for those experiencing homelessness. And then, how resources from food to sanitizer to COVID-19 testing has been provided in these locations, meeting people where they are. And even further, how teams are pivoting to return individuals and families to permanent housing solutions – and this is just one example of many. The attention to intersecting needs and the depth of commitment exhibited by so many partners who have lent leadership and resources to this effort is almost superhuman.

Approach seen as model for civic change by donors near and far

No response of this magnitude could be achieved without the great number of donors in our region and beyond who have given gifts of all sizes in selfless acts of ongoing generosity. One of the Foundation’s most important roles remains connecting donors to the community’s greatest needs in accordance with their unique passions. Our donors have responded generously with grants to our MKE Responds Fund, established to support relief and recovery, and directly to nonprofits to sustain their important work. 

Our community’s innovations have attracted national attention and external resources to the fund. In early May, the Foundation received a $1 million commitment from the prestigious Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to provide humanitarian aid to help some of the families and communities feeling the greatest strain under the COVID-19 health emergency. Significant contributions from Houston-based Arnold Ventures and Washington, D.C.-based Public Welfare Foundation are also supporting our work. These grants recognize our region’s collective approach and our focus on identifying and addressing systemic inequities. 

We are committed to strengthening our comprehensive civic response as well as supporting the many nonprofits who face the dual challenge of increased demand for services amid decreasing revenue streams. We are using our knowledge of the community, front-line insight from MKE Civic Response Team partners, and inclusive grantmaking processes to ensure dollars reach those providing essential services in these unprecedented times.

Including the Foundation’s initial investment, the MKE Responds Fund has raised more than $4 million from individual, corporate and foundation donors. Together, our total commitment to COVID-19 relief in our region through donor, Board-directed and external gifts through the Foundation is over $6.6 million and continuing to grow.

Community foundations demonstrate philanthropic leadership

Our local response has been unique and powerful. At the same time, it speaks to the leadership role of community foundations everywhere in times of both crisis and opportunity.

According to the Community Foundation Public Awareness Initiative, more than 350 community foundations across the country have created funds to support COVID-19 relief and prevention. At last count, these efforts have mobilized over $882 million to help those in need.

We are proud to be part of this nationwide force for good, and in greater Milwaukee, to be at the forefront of a civic movement that extends beyond grantmaking to address the very core of how a community reimagines the way hope, opportunity and prosperity are distributed.

True to our word while preparing for a new future

We know the community we’re returning to won’t be the same one we left behind, but our important commitments endure. In fact, they are as important as ever.

For example, the Foundation was already deepening investment in early childhood education upon identifying large gaps in supply, quality and affordability. The pandemic, however, has caused about one-third of providers in Milwaukee to close, and those that remain open face additional expense, responsibility and uncertainty. We are focused on ensuring resources are available to stabilize the sector and prepare for future need. The Foundation recently contributed to an MKE Civic Response Team effort to award $350,000 in stabilization grants to 140 licensed family- and center-based providers in five ZIP codes in Milwaukee County with the highest concentration of black and brown children.

We also remain fully committed to our GMF-MCW Partnership and our joint vision of a Milwaukee that is equitable, healthy and thriving for all. This includes the future move of our offices and community-based development on King Drive – a project that continues as planned but takes on new significance in the context of our community’s broader economic and social recovery.

That restoration of greater Milwaukee’s economy and personal well-being is the next horizon and where we are already turning attention. Whether aligning with partners to deliver resources that sustain small businesses and nonprofits or providing services to large employers who want to offer relief to their workers, we have the diverse tools and skill set to help re-establish and grow prosperity in the region. 

As we’ve shown for over a century, we are this community’s partner in philanthropy. Join us in generosity, in collaboration and in hope as we recover and thrive.

Return to COVID-19 home

Learn more

Our Donor Resources – COVID-19 page offers information and tools for Foundation donors who want to help.