The 29th Annual National Philanthropy Day Awards

The Madison community is awarded for giving back
The 29th Annual National Philanthropy Day Awards
Erin Halverson of Melissa Grace Photography
Mahlon Michael Mitchell

On a dazzling fall day late last year in the three-story glass and marble fish tank that anchors one of Madison’s most iconic buildings, 450 community members gathered for the 29th annual National Philanthropy Day Awards. “There’s no better place in our community, a place built by philanthropy, to hold this annual event,” emcee Susan Siman told the crowd. She spoke from the main lobby of the Overture Center for the Arts, known as “the house that philanthropy built,” not only because Jerry Frautschi gave a staggering $210 million to construct it, but because Pleasant Rowland, worried Madison’s nine resident arts groups wouldn’t be able to afford the rent, worked with Madison Community Foundation to challenge those groups to raise a $23 million matching gift campaign. Now, the Great Performance Fund is a permanent $46 million component fund of MCF.

There were seven honors bestowed that day to individual philanthropists, family foundations and businesses. And although the Lifetime Achievement Honor went to the Irving & Dorothy Levy Family Foundation for their remarkable contributions, it wasn’t a wealthy big-name donor climbing the stage that day to collect the “Outstanding Philanthropic Achievement Award”–it was a group of local firefighters.

“As firefighters, we have a mantra that says as you go, we go,” said Mahlon Michael Mitchell as he accepted the award on behalf of Firefighters Local 311 Charities, founded after a 1998 bus fire catalyzed first responders to raise $220,000 for the victims in the aftermath. Since then, the charity, funded solely by its 475 firefighters, has donated tens of thousands of dollars for organizations such as American Family Children’s Hospital, Gio’s Garden and Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation. “We never leave a brother or sister behind, and we utilize that same mantra in the community.”

“As firefighters we have a mantra that says as you go, we go.”

Each year, this sold-out event honors not only large-scale philanthropists like the Levy family, but the everyday folks whose lifestyle of donating and volunteering has caught the attention of their fellow community members. One glance at this year’s program reveals a staggering list of past honorees, including individuals and families, private and public foundations, nonprofits and the business community, many of whom have given in small, consistent amounts. When then-14-year-old Frannie Donovan was honored as Outstanding Young Philanthropist of the Year in 2013 for raising $10,000 for the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County starting at age 6, she accepted her award before the crowd–and promptly asked for donations. People are shy about giving small amounts, she’d said, “but if everybody in this room today gave me just $20, it would surpass all I’ve raised to date.” The room gasped, then chuckled, then applauded. She was right.

“Anyone can nominate anyone in the community. You could be a stay-at-home mom that has been impacted by somebody donating diapers to you, or you could be American Family, who has spent millions in the community,” says Annie Thym, committee co-chair of the event produced by the Association of Fundraising Professionals Greater Madison Chapter. Entries are judged by an anonymous panel–the members of which do not know the identities of the other panelists. In addition to its having a record number of nominees and not one, but three presenting sponsors for the first time–Madison Community Foundation, CUNA Mutual Foundation and National Guardian Life Insurance Company–this was the sixth year in a row that the luncheon sold out. “Everybody wants to be in the room because it has such a great vibe,” says Thym.

2016 Philanthropy Day Winners

Outstanding Philanthropic Organization: Firefighters Local 311 Charities, nominated by JDRF Western Wisconsin Chapter

Outstanding Fundraising Professional: Kristi Shepard, United Way of Dane County, nominated by Tom and Kira Dott

Outstanding Individual Philanthropist: Dave Boyer and Joan Philip, nominated by UnityPoint Health-Meriter Foundation

Outstanding Volunteer Fundraiser: Hal Blotner, nominated by Alzheimer’s & Dementia Alliance of WI


Achievement: Irving & Dorothy Levy Family Foundation, nominated by four entities: Olbrich Botanical Society, SSM Health St. Mary’s Foundation-Madison, United Way of Dane County and UnityPoint Health-Meriter Foundation