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Neil Heinen: Kathleen Woit and Madison Community Foundation keep pushing Madison toward “model city” status

Published On: May 25 2013 08:41:20 PM CDT
Updated On: May 26 2013 09:11:06 AM CDT
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By Neil Heinen

A few weeks ago, my longtime teaching partner Judy Adrian and I wrapped up another semester of teaching our COR class at Edgewood College. COR classes “encourage students to examine the connection between learning, beliefs and actions in order to build a more just and compassionate world.” Judy and I challenge our students to make that connection in the context of urban issues. Madison is our laboratory and we ask if Madison has met John Nolen’s lofty aspirations of “model city” status.

The reasons I begin a column about outgoing Madison Community Foundation president Kathleen Woit with this anecdote are twofold. First, Woit’s been an Edgewood College trustee for ten years and she cares deeply about the college. But more importantly, the class considers what makes cities great places to live, what gives urban environments stability, sustainability and substance. In 2013, any objective answer to these questions as they relate to Madison would include the Madison Community Foundation. In fact, it might start with the Madison Community Foundation. And Kathleen Woit.

The Madison Community Foundation is part of the civic bedrock in which twenty-first century Madison is grounded. It’s one of a handful of public, private and nonprofit institutions that together create the weave of Madison’s fabric of life. What it has accomplished in the last twenty years is truly extraordinary.

And I don’t believe it could have happened without Kathleen Woit. She will not be happy with me for saying that. Woit, just the fourth president of the foundation in seventy years, praises her predecessors Robert Johns, Carol Toussaint and Jane Coleman, three of Madison’s great civic leaders. She’s so proud of her staff she can barely stand it—and it is an impressive group of people who have grown as individuals and collectively into a team of caring, thoughtful and visionary professionals. And she talks about going to work every day as if there were simply nothing she would rather do. I believe every bit of it. I also believe it is Woit’s character, personality, vision, heart, soul and passion that made it all possible.

Woit says she got over the numbers a long time ago. No small feat in her line of work, but probably a valuable survival technique. The foundation’s assets totaled $40 million in 1997. They’re north of $130 million today. For Woit, it’s what the $130 million represents. “My vision from the beginning was to open these doors as wide as I could. That’s the benchmark. And I sit here today at 950 [individual] funds, from sixty when I started. And that’s what I feel good about.”

Woit says it is that breadth of giving that says something about our community. “It’s not about ‘all these rich people.’ It’s about the people who live right over there.” In other words, any one and all of us.

Woit is also proud of how the community responded during the recession. “All the way through the recession—and I mean all the way through—giving by caring individuals did not stop, and in some cases it accelerated. When you think about the new programs and new facilities that were built between 2008 and 2012, it is amazing.”

As always, giving was and is a mix of donor-designated funds and increasingly important undesignated giving, which the foundation board and staff so thoughtfully allocates. The results? Game-changing support for libraries, community centers, the children’s museum, water quality, food, shelter and jobs during the tough recession years, and back to libraries.

The foundation’s future, in the capable hands of Bob Sorge, includes growing its philanthropic footprint beyond Madison and even Dane County.

And Woit’s future? She’ll be working for the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, creating a model for sustaining programs for the Town Center. “Back on the campus, back in elementary ed,” says Woit, “I’m right back where I started.”

And Madison is so much further ahead.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.

Find more of his columns here.

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