Staying mission driven in Madison

Paul Harrison works with fundraising for Access
Staying mission driven in Madison
Photo by Sharon Vanorny

One rule of fundraising–or development, as it is more often called these days–is that you’re not supposed to have favorite donors. Paul Harrison couldn’t help it. Back when he was with Holy Wisdom Monastery–at the time known as the Saint Benedict Center–he had a favorite.

“There was a woman who sent in $2 a week,” Harrison says, “and she did it for something like 25 years.”

Every week, Harrison wrote her a thank-you note.

“It wasn’t the money,” he recalls. “It was the commitment. I got to be part of that relationship, and it was pretty amazing.”

Harrison, 53, has been development and communications director for Access Community Health Centers in Madison for the past 14 years.

He has helped Access grow into a vital civic asset–a nonprofit that each year helps 27,000 people who face financial and cultural challenges in getting quality health care. Nearly one-third are children. Access’s Celebrate Smiles program now brings licensed dental staff to 29 schools, helping 3,000 kids with their teeth.

The work could hardly be more important, but Harrison, a small-town kid from Richland Center, is also appreciated by colleagues and a wide circle of friends for his quick wit and embrace of life’s vagaries.

For instance, in Richland Center, where Harrison’s family roots date back to the 1850s, everybody knows everybody.

“You go to the grocery store and someone says, ‘I just tried your Aunt Mimi’s stroganoff recipe. It’s amazing!’ ” he says, adding, “It was a good place to grow up. It’s beautiful. It has been hit hard economically, of late. But there’s a lot of resilience and a lot of people who feel strongly about staying.”

After two years at the University of Wisconsin-Richland, Harrison finished college at UW-Madison, graduating in journalism. While he liked writing, he wasn’t keen on working for a newspaper. Harrison was walking down Monroe Street when he saw a sign in a window: “Cool Jobs for Hip Cats.”

It was Pasqual’s Cantina, a new restaurant. Harrison signed on and ended up staying nearly a decade, doing public relations and marketing. “It was fun. I learned a lot. I still know all the ingredients in a grilled garden taco.”

While at Pasqual’s, Harrison began volunteering for the AIDS Network. It was the early 1990s. Harrison helped people too sick to clean or do laundry.

One day the volunteer coordinator asked if he would like to help them raise money.

“I’d seen that people had all this need,” Harrison says, “and I had thought, ‘If we just had a little more money, we could do these other things.’ ”

He began volunteer fundraising. “I like mission,” he says.

In June 1999 Harrison attended a Tibetan Freedom Concert at Alpine Valley. Singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman performed. Harrison left determined to make a change. He quit Pasqual’s.

After a round of networking over coffee, Harrison wound up at Wegner CPAs, which had recently begun providing nonprofit consulting.

Harrison helped a series of Wegner clients figure out how to write grants, run capital campaigns and more.

“I loved it,” he says. “I love going in and organizing stuff. Talking to people, meeting donors and connecting people who wanted to do something with things that needed to be done.”

But going from client to client, Harrison notes, never allowed him “to finish the story,” and he left consulting for a development job at the St. Benedict Center, now Holy Wisdom Monastery, where he spent a few years before getting the call from Access Community Health Centers.

The timing–it was 2004–was right. Access had just received a designation as a federally qualified health center. It was starting a dental program. The center had a smart and ambitious CEO in Barbara Snell.

“I met Barbara,” Harrison says. “She talked about changing people’s lives. It felt like they were ready to launch.”

Armed with a good story to tell–Access’s important work, and its potential to do more–Harrison helped make it happen.

“It’s about building relationships,” he says of development. “All of us as people have goals and interests. Donors are the same. They have things they’d like to see accomplished in the community.”

Though Snell has moved on, other colleagues–a core group including Joanne Holland, Tammy Quall and chief medical officer Ken Loving–are still at Access. Loving is now CEO.

Their successes include the 2014 opening of the Joyce and Marshall Erdman Clinic on Park Street.

“It’s a state-of-the-art clinic that fit into the neighborhood,” Harrison says. “It’s nice, but more importantly, it’s welcoming.”

Away from work, Harrison reads, gardens and dotes on his 12 nieces, eight godchildren and two shih tzu dogs, Hugo and Clementine, the latter named for Churchill’s wife.

Next month, Harrison will oversee Access’s 19th “Celebration of Service” dinner at Monona Terrace, an annual gathering of some 700 community leaders, health care professionals and Access patients.

“Certainly, it’s a fundraiser,” he says. “Equally significant to us is it’s an opportunity for the community to talk about something really important.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his weekly blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” on