Grand Gifts

Philanthropic efforts create community legacies

By Sean P. Johnson

Maria Dietrich received the email on a Friday after work.

Dietrich had not been expecting the message. As soon as she read it, she knew the weekend would be a torturous exercise in trying to keep a secret. The news was good, really good, and she wanted to share it with anyone who would listen.

First, she needed to share it with her colleagues at Green Lake’s Thrasher Opera House.

It was not until the following week, though, that she was able to share her news with the full board of directors: the $100,000 mortgage hanging over their heads was about to be paid off by an anonymous donor.

“That was really a fun moment,” she says, remembering when she was finally be able to tell the board about the donor’s gift. “He wrote that he was a fan of what we do and he wanted to pay off the mortgage for us. I’m just glad I didn’t have to wait too long to tell everyone.”

Nearly four months have passed since Dietrich, who is the Thrasher’s development director, shared the contents of the email. For the time being, the Thrasher management team has not made a major announcements about the gift, though they know the news is percolating throughout the community.

It’s not that they don’t want to talk about it. After all, the gift will pay off the office and retail space acquired in 2008 that supports the administrative and programming functions at the 103 year-old opera house.

Part of their slower pace is timing.

The first priority for staff and volunteers was conducting the Thrasher’s annual September fundraising event, the largest they hold each year. Secondly, they’ve been doing a lot of reflecting. With the mortgage paid off, the board of directors has an opportunity to set a course that ensures a long legacy for the Thrasher and Green Lake.

They want to make sure they get that right, Dietrich says.

“It was just a year ago that mortgage was near $140,000 and we were paying out more than $1,000 a month,” Dietrich says. “We need to really have some serious discussions about how we can use this as a springboard.”

The Thrasher opened in 1910 as a venue for traveling theatrical companies and  vaudeville acts. It was soon converted to a movie house – first silent, then sound – but by World War II had closed as a performance space. It was later used as factory and as warehouse space.

By 1994, the village of Green Lake was considering demolition. Local businessman Ron Hagstrom stepped forward, bought the building and began a restoration. It reopened as a performance venue in 1998.

The most likely strategy going forward is to use this as an opportunity to build an endowment that will support the opera house for years to come. An endowment fund started two years ago has slightly more than $10,000.

Without mortgage payments, the Thrasher board can concentrate on building a reserve that protects the Thrasher’s future.

“It does not change what we do around here day-to-day,” Dietrich says. “There is always going to be an ebb and flow, this will just make it easier to deal with times when revenues are flat.

“When you are in debt, your thinking is in the hole as well. Now, we can take a look around and really expand our thinking.”

The term “game-changer” may be overused and a cliche, but it really does summarize the gift received by the Thrasher Opera House, or any other nonprofit organization. Such gifts can empower these groups to move beyond survival mode into expanding the programs they offer and better fulfilling their mission.

They can also change a community.

In Appleton, for example, the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center has become an integral part of the downtown and the overall community. A little more than a decade ago, it did not exist. When challenged to fulfill the vision, several major donors and hundreds of smaller contributors made its construction possible and ultimately changed the city.

The folks in Fond du Lac are anticipating a similar renaissance there.
In September, the Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts – formerly the Windhover Center – reopened its doors after a major expansion of both its physical space and its role in the community. The $7 million project, keyed by a major gift from the Sadoff Family Foundation, is the cornerstone of the Fond Du Lac Arts and Entertainment District, an ambitious plan to revitalize downtown Fond Du Lac.

The expanded 39,000 square foot arts facility has already seen some of the vacant building near it also being renovated and repurposed, and it’s September Thelma Week festivities attracted thousands to the downtown area.

“We’ve become a catalyst and that really was the spirit of the gift,” says Kevin Miller, executive director of Thelma. “Now, we’ve become a destination for groups in the area. That’s a revenue line we never had before and it also brings thousands of people to our door and to the downtown.”

Whether these gifts indicate new and growing trend remains to be seen.

As the after effects of the Great Recession of 2008 have lingered, nonprofits have struggled to maintain their budgets and attract donors. For the arts community, this has often meant taking a back seat to nonprofits that focus on human needs such as food and shelter.

“Since the recession, the focus has really been about meeting basic needs” says Jessica Dennis, a co-founder of Charitabli, a company that seeks to bring crowdsource funding techniques to the nonprofit sector. “The arts community has suffered in some respects, but I can also see that we may be seeing a shift back as things improve.”

Dennis is quick to note the arts community in the Fox Cities has tremendous leadership which has helped guide it through the challenges of the past five years.

“Everything is about relationships,” Dennis says. “When there is someone behind a cause that people know, they are more likely to support it.”

For many in the art community, they would not have expected things to be any different during the past few years. As times got tough, the community stepped forward to help those who needed it most.

“When the world changed in 2008, we noticed the response,” says Curt Detjen, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of the Fox Cities. “We had neighbors in need.”

The community, though, has been up to the challenge, as both individuals and entities such as the Fox Cities Community Foundation have been key resources in helping the community meet not only the challenges created by a tough economy, but also helping the regions many cultural assets survive and thrive.

While challenged by the sluggishness of the economy as a whole, the community showed a resiliency and willingness to help its own, Detjen says. The community foundation ranks about 60th nationally when it comes to asset size, but it is in the top 12 when it comes donor activity.

In 2012, the foundation held more than $200 million in assets and distributed more than $12.6 million in grants to nearly 900 nonprofit groups. At the same time, it took in more than $15 million in donation to replenish its endowment.

That’s reflective of the generosity that seems to run through the state as a whole. In 2012, Wisconsinites made more than $2 billion in charitable donations, according to data from Contributions for the Appleton metro area were nearly $140 million.

“There is a culture of philanthropy in the Fox Cities,” Detjen says. “We benefit from the giving spirit that has existed here for years. It’s our responsibility to pay that forward.”

The Foundation spreads its grants throughout a variety of nonprofit agencies, including human services, education, the environment and arts and culture. The grants may not pay off the mortgage, but they can make the difference for an nonprofit group making the next big step in its development.

Take newVoices, formerly the White Heron Chorale, as an example. The vocal group was a recipient of a foundation capacity grant, which made it possible for the group to hire its first full time executive director. The executive director was able to make the group self-sufficient, enabling it to focus on its core programming mission.

“It changed the way we do things by empowering us to professionalize and prosper,” says Mary Schmidt, president of the newVoices board of directors.

The work of the foundation and smaller contributors may not always have the catalyst effect like the donations to the Thrasher and Thelma, but they do help their recipients fulfill and expand their mission.

Though they have not enjoyed a large gift like their brethren in Green Lake and FDL, the folks involved with the Fox Cities Building for the Arts have benefitted contributors who want to see the arts thrive in the Fox Cities.

“We have a real clear vision of what we can do here and we have shared it with the community,” says Pamela Williams-Lime. “Donors are agreeing with the need and the role these arts organizations play.”

Of course, Williams-Lime would welcome a major donor stepping forward to pay off the mortgage. But until that happens, she will gladly work with those donors who have opted to include the Building for the Arts in their giving.

Because of those donors, The Fox Cities Building for the Arts has been able to launch a renovation of its building so the arts groups residing there can concentrate resources on their programming, rather than renting space in various locations for rehearsals and board meetings.

In addition, a strategic grant written on behalf of all the groups using the building will allow them to launch an outreach program to introduce families to the arts in a variety of forms.

Williams-Lime said the arts are at a pivotal time in the Fox Cities. With fine arts education often one of the first items cut back when school budgets are tight, local arts groups and facilities such as the Appleton Building for the Arts can play a central role in filling the gap.

“We are working to create a level of sustainability, and that is going to take more than a few lead donors and volunteers,” she says. “That’s going to take financial resources, advocacy and volunteerism to accomplish.”


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