Spreading The Passion

The act of giving empowers positive change


Education, health, environment, wildlife, religious organizations or international aid foundations, few people realize how large charities have become and how many vital services they provide. In Milwaukee, many of these organizations are kept alive by individuals donating large sums of money, time or both. Either as a vocation found early in life or as a means of sharing some of their hard-earned fortune, there are people in the area who have taken giving to a higher level. We sat down with some of the area’s biggest philanthropists, donors and relief workers to talk about the how, what and why of giving.

Transforming Youth
Deanna Singh

Anyone motivated by these stories of giving would do well in meeting Deanna Singh. A self-proclaimed “chronic founder,” she is the person behind initiatives such as the Milwaukee Renaissance Academy, the Milwaukee Street Law Project and LIFT-Bronx. 

Singh received a bachelor’s degree in urban studies from Fordham University, her law degree from Georgetown University and an MBA from UW-Madison. She has served as vice president, program officer of the Robert W. Baird Foundation. Recently named one of Milwaukee’s 40 under 40 in 2014 by The Business Journal, she is currently the executive director of the Burke Foundation, an organization that supports 21 programs in Milwaukee focused on urban education, and youth and leadership development. It was started by the late Dick Burke, founder of Trek Bicycle. In early 2014, the foundation awarded seven youth-focused organizations $6 million. “Dick Burke left an amazing legacy in this city and one that I am honored to work towards fulfilling every day,” Singh says. “I share his belief that if we empower our young people to be their very best, we will see true transformation in this city.” 

Singh is the CEO of Singh Consultations, a company dedicated to assisting nonprofit organizations achieve their missions. She has some advice for anyone wanting to start a nonprofit organization: “The first thing I tell people is don’t do it,” she says. “The marketplace is saturated with nonprofit organizations that are struggling to stay afloat and realize their missions. Instead, I encourage passionate people to seek out organizations or individuals who are already effectively engaged in their area of interest and then figure out
how they could use their talent, skills and passion.”

If, after a thorough analysis it is determined there really is an unfilled gap, Singh encourages people to do four things:

• Figure out how are they going to solve problems, not merely address them. The best social sector organizations are the ones that are trying to put themselves out of business.

• Identify strengths and weaknesses honestly and then build a team that can fill in any deficiencies. 

• Walk alongside the community you are aiming to help and understand things from their perspective. You are not automatically qualified just because you care and think you have a good idea.

• Start thinking about sustainability. “I am a huge proponent of organizations that have diversified income streams from the very beginning and can be self-sustaining,” Singh says.

For any young person thinking of following her career path, Singh has some more words of advice: “This is not work for people who need quick wins, who are not willing to be vulnerable or who are motivated by self-interest. The power to persevere in this work comes from a deeply seated passion, a life calling, that can’t be put out. Trying to solve deeply rooted social and economic issues is not easy work. However, there is nothing more rewarding than knowing that your work could fundamentally and positively change the life of others. I wake up in the middle of the night excited about the work that I get to do and for that I am truly grateful. There is no title or salary that could match that kind of fulfillment.”

Philanthropy Leaders
Patti & Jack McKeithan

Anyone who does business in Milwaukee or is involved with a nonprofit certainly will recognize the names Jack and Patti McKeithan. Daniel F. “Jack” McKeithan Jr. serves as chairman, CEO and director of Tamarack Petroleum Co. Inc. and is president of Active Investor Management Inc. He is also president and CEO of SeisTech Development Inc. In 1973, he was elected to the board of directors of the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co. and became chairman after the sudden death of Robert Uihlein Jr. in 1976, serving in that position until 1982.  

In a brewery not far away, his wife, Patti Brash McKeithan, held the position of vice president of corporate affairs for Miller until her retirement in May 2004.

This highly successful couple has an equally impressive resume of philanthropic activities. Jack has been a board chairman or board member of the National Urban League, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, Columbia Hospital and Columbia/St. Mary’s Hospital, Zoological Society, United Way and MS of Wisconsin, and a trustee of the Great Circus Parade Inc., Marquette University and the Evan and Marion Helfaer Foundation. Patti has been the chair or a board member for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, United Way, Milwaukee Public Museum, Wisconsin AIDS Fund, Summerfest and Wisconsin State Fair Park, as well as a trustee of St. Norbert College and the director of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation.  

Both Jack and Patti attribute their involvement in charitable organizations to their upbringing. “I was raised in a farm community in North Carolina,” Jack says. “Farm families support each other through thick and thin, in good and in unhappy occasions. I learned at an early age that not everyone was as blessed as my family. As I got older, I remembered those situations and have made every effort since then to help when and where I can.”

Patti grew up in a military family and lived internationally. “In some of the countries I lived in I saw unbelievable poverty on the streets and people doing whatever they had to do to survive another day. I never forgot what I saw and it made me grateful for what I had been given,” she says.  

Two of Milwaukee’s most successful fundraisers, the McKeithans received the Evan P. Helfaer Donor Award from the Association of Fundraising Professionals of Southeastern Wisconsin in 2009. 

Organizations across the country regularly solicit their help. Deciding what to get involved in is not always easy. “Our criteria is to give to organizations that provide education, social techniques and exposure to various disciplines that will broaden opportunities for the individual or organization. We also believe that raising money for organizations is just as important as giving,” Patti says. “My husband is one of the best fundraisers I’ve ever known.”

One of the organizations closest to their hearts is the International Crane Foundation (ICF). Headquartered in Baraboo, the ICF’s goal is to protect the endangered cranes by safeguarding the wetlands, watersheds and flyways that they depend on. The goal is that the populations of all 15 crane species will be either stabilized or increasing by the end of the next decade.

The McKeithans were hooked after they met ICF co-founder Dr. George Archibald. “Cranes are among the most endangered families of birds in the world,” Jack says. “Eleven of the 15 species is threatened with extinction. The rarest of all cranes, the whooping crane, faces an array of conservation challenges here in North America. It is an international conservation effort and all of us will benefit from it. For the birds and other species to survive you must save wetlands and water. The water issue is enormous for the world to survive. So we consider the cranes as ambassadors of conservation. We must maintain the balance with nature or we will be in serious trouble.” 

For Patti, being involved with organizations like the ICF is a win-win. “It broadens your relationships with people you are just meeting and strengthens your friendship with people you already know,” she says. “The circle just keeps getting bigger, which is a good thing.” 

For the McKeithans, there is no excuse for not getting involved in some cause that is important to you. Taken as an example, they both have or had very demanding careers and more than their share of family obligations but have always found a way to make it work. “Even with your responsibilities to family and job you can always find time for philanthropy,” Patti says. “It may just be a casual conversation in an elevator or while walking down the street with someone. When it comes to raising money, you always have to have your elevator speech ready.”

Lead by Example
Ron & Micky Sadoff

A graduate of UW-Madison School of Business and Marquette Law School, Ron Sadoff launched his investment firm in 1978. Today, Sadoff Investment Management LLC is one of the oldest and largest independent firms in Wisconsin. Life took a turn for Sadoff in 1982 when he and his wife, Micky, were seriously injured by a drunken driver. The incident led them to become involved with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and they founded the Milwaukee chapter. Micky held numerous executive positions within the organization and eventually became the national president. 

Nineteen years ago, Sadoff decided he was ready for a major charitable undertaking. “I wanted to focus on disadvantaged children,” he says. “My wife and I had seen a segment on ‘60 Minutes’ about Marva Collins, a grade school teacher in Chicago. I visited her school and was so impressed that I told her I would not leave until she gave me a license to open her school in Milwaukee. One year later we opened what was to become Milwaukee College Prep. We had 76 students at the time. I never dreamed we would now have four campuses with nearly 1,900 students and be one of the most successful urban charter schools in the country.”

Sadoff says Milwaukee College Prep’s numbers tell a tale of success. “Our results are awesome. It’s important to note that we have a completely blind admission. We simply pull names out of a hat. There is no preselection. Our students are 98 percent African Americans, with 83 percent eligible for free or reduced meals, and 12 percent of our children have special needs. With that in mind, let’s compare results. In Milwaukee, the high school graduation rate for African Americans is 56 percent; ours is 93 percent. That’s a huge difference. Even more significant are the college graduation figures. Nationwide, the rate for African Americans is 8 percent. Ours is 40 percent. That’s gigantic. Under our umbrella, over time these results will significantly reduce poverty and crime in Milwaukee.”

How involved are the Sadoffs in the day-to-day running of the school? “We have a fantastic CEO and a sensational team,” Ron says. “I play a very active role in fundraising and getting individuals to tour our campuses, but at the school my role is really to pat everyone on the back as our teachers and administrators continue to hit grand slams.” Micky says she was more involved in the day-to-day in the early years. “Now I participate in board meetings and events,” she says. “I also read with children and help however and wherever I can.”

The Sadoffs encourage others to follow their example. “We should all give back in one way or another. If not monetarily, then give of our time or expertise,” says Micky. “I think we need to lead by example, and I like to think I encourage others by showing them that they can make a difference.” 

The Sadoffs say they do get something back for their efforts. “My primary goal regarding donations is to help improve society and make our world a better place to live. Having said that, I think great satisfaction is the ultimate payback,” says Ron. “The reward is seeing the huge changes in the lives of our students. Knowing that they will participate in the American dream is a great high.” 

Micky adds, “The smiles and positive self-esteem of our children is a rich reward.”

There are plans to expand the scope of Milwaukee College Prep schools, but that takes money. “Our ability to expand is a function of our talent and our fundraising capabilities,” Ron says. “Each year we must raise $1.5 million. Plus, we have to raise approximately $6 million for each new school building. Yes, we can expand the number of schools, but we will need a bit of help. I would encourage anyone to come visit our schools and get involved.” 

Vocation Driven
Dr. David Gaus

Sometimes a simple conversation can change a person’s life. This is what happened to Dr. David Gaus after a talk with former Notre Dame University President Theodore M. Hesburgh. The soul-searching discussion prompted him to travel to Quito, Ecuador, where he spent two years volunteering at The Working Boys Center. It was there that the Waukesha County native first witnessed an alarming lack of access to even basic health services. The experience led him to finish his pre-med studies at Notre Dame and study medicine at the Tulane Medical School. Along with his M.D., Gaus earned a master’s in public health and tropical medicine and completed his residency at the University of Wisconsin.

Today, Gaus is an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin. He recently received the AMA Foundation’s 2014 Excellence in Medicine Award, which honors physicians who exemplify the medical profession’s highest values: leadership, community service and dedication to treating underserved patients. 

He spends much of his time, however, in rural Ecuador. It was on one of these trips that he experienced firsthand the hardships the people suffer for lack of a viable health care system. A child died in his truck on a four-hour trip to Quito to get treatment for a snakebite. Gaus had discovered his passion. 

“It’s all about passion and vocation,” he says. “Vocation, for me, is distinct from career. Career is a retrospective diagnosis at the end of life, where your resume says what you did for 30-plus years. Vocation is more proactive. If you can determine what drives you, what gets you out of bed in the morning (maybe even without the need for that first cup of coffee), what truly excites you – well, then you have found passion. Passion then needs to be contextualized to the community in which you live which could benefit from your passion. That’s when passion becomes a vocation. You drive it. You control it. You take it where it needs to go. You own it. You’re proactively channeling your passion.”

Gaus channeled his passion into the launch of Andean Healthcare & Development (AHD). “Our mission is to provide self-sustaining, comprehensive health care in poor, rural areas of Latin America,” he says. 

To do so, AHD opened its first hospital in Pedro Vicente Maldonado, a community of 80,000 that did not have one. Last June, the group added Hesburgh Hospital in Santo Domingo, Ecuador.

Setting up and maintaining a hospital where there was none is a complex undertaking. Getting Pedro Vicente Maldonado Hospital off the ground and keeping it going requires both a lot of work and a lot of funding. Gaus says it is all part of the vocation. “Ironically, doctoring is what I do the least. Hospital administration, teaching students and residents, financial accounting, local political management and institutional development take up more of my time.” 

According to Gaus, the key to success has been finding competent local people with whom to work. “The answer is almost always in the hands of the locals,” he says. “Many people know what should be done. It’s the how to do it where people get stuck. The local people are bright but limited by their own circumstances. For me, finding these people and giving them the space and the resources to accomplish what they have has likely been my greatest accomplishment, if I have had any.”

So, how great has that accomplishment been? “Fortunately, in our first hospital we have done what we always said we would do: help Ecuador create a model of self-sustainable health care without turning anyone away.”

To keep it all going, though, takes money. “We are in a community where 70 percent of the population live on $1 to $2 a day. Even so, our new 60-bed hospital will be financially self-sustainable by the end of 2015 – all based on in-country financing mechanisms,” he says. “The U.S. investment is $4 million for the building and equipment, which would have cost $20 million in the U.S., and another half million for operating capital. Then the hospital is on its own and won’t need outside help. How could that not be appealing for a donor?”