How Business Gives Back

BY LORI ACKEN  |   PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID SZYMANSKI 

They say the holiday season is the season of giving. But the myriad joys of sharing resources, dollars, manpower and good fortune spreads far beyond the holidays for many local businesses and organizations. Read on to learn more about a handful of those companies, corporations and professional athletic teams whose charitable arms support the greater good across metro Milwaukee (and often beyond) all year long. It’s the perfect inspiration to launch your own season of good will and good deeds. 

Brewers Community Foundation
Cecelia Gore

When you’re root, root, rooting for the home team, it’s good to know that the home team is also rooting for Milwaukee.

The cheering starts during spring training, according to Cecelia Gore, executive director of the Brewers Community Foundation, the official charitable arm of the Milwaukee Brewers. Each preseason, Gore travels to Arizona to talk with the entire team about supporting the work of the foundation, which contributes to more than 200 nonprofits annually.

“We get a resounding ‘yes’ from each player on the 25-man roster,” Gore says. “People really appreciate us having 100 percent giving from our players, along with fans, sponsors and other supporters.”

Ryan Braun, for example, puts his money where his heart is, consistently funding more than 15 scholarships per year and throwing both his muscle and money into Habitat for Humanity projects.

The foundation has raised more than $35 million in the past 10 years, channeling those funds to nonprofit organizations addressing health, education, recreation and basic needs. Fans are encouraged to pitch in by participating in the foundation’s signature events: the Racing Sausages 5K Run/Walk, the Hitting 4 the Cycle 25-mile bike ride, and Brewers Community Foundation (BCF) Week, which features daily fundraising activities and an online Ultimate Auction.

One of the foundation’s most popular fundraising tools is its 50/50 raffle at Brewers home games. A fan receives half of the day’s raffle proceeds (this season, raffle prizes ranged from about $7,000 to $47,000) and the remaining proceeds are added to the foundation’s charitable coffers. In 2018, raffle receipts totaled $2.9 million.

“On the giving side, I can’t even express how many wonderful things we’ve been able to do,” Gore says. “For instance, we contributed $100,000 for United Way’s Safe and Stable Homes program, which will hopefully start a movement to eliminate family homelessness by 2025.” Gore also serves on the board of directors of United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County.

The Brewers Community Foundation funds several scholarship programs focusing on high school graduates going to school in Wisconsin, including the Allan H. (“Bud”) Selig Scholarship, which provides recipients with $10,000 over four years and has a $1 million endowment.

The foundation has been a steady supporter of Sojourner Family Peace Center; Debbie Anastasio and Brewers wives also do volunteer work there. And it has helped to build the Fisher House for families of veterans seeking treatment at the Zablocki Veterans Administration Medical Center. 

The baseball field at Baran Park on the city’s South Side is freshly renovated thanks to the Brewers Community Foundation, which also buys uniforms for four organizations that serve more than 25 Little League teams.

Gore says she loves her job because “you can see firsthand how these contributions translate into an action that improves someone’s quality of life. … The other thing I really appreciate is being able to plant the seeds of philanthropy in fans, front office staff and players. Hopefully that creates a pathway for a number of individuals to roll up their sleeves to help others.” — Nan Bialek 


Sendik’s Food Market
Margaret Harris

For the past 50 or 60 years — who’s counting? — Sendik’s Food Market has been helping the Whitefish Bay Boy Scouts raise a few bucks.

“My dad used to give them lemons for their annual fish fry,” explains Margaret Harris of Sendik’s. “The Scouts used to get a dozen lemons, now they get two cases. It’s those traditional things we do that are really kind of fun.”

Overall, Sendik’s charitable efforts have grown substantially during the company’s 93 years in business. Last year, the 17 Sendik’s stores gave more than $956,000 in financial support and in-kind contributions to local causes. Harris says she and her brothers — Ted, Patrick and Nick — all live in Milwaukee and are committed to helping the metro area thrive.

“To do that, you have to lift up everybody in the community,” she says. “We’re die-hard Wisconsin fans, and we don’t think there’s anyplace in the world better to live. It’s part of who we are, and we just feel we need to give back to the community and make it stronger.”

By asking shoppers to contribute at checkout, and with additional support from vendors such as Turbana Banana, Sendik’s provides steady support for three charities every year: the MACC Fund, Feeding America and Honor Flights. The MACC Fund is what Harris calls “a constant” because the family had been touched by childhood cancer. Feeding America gets an annual gift “because my brother Ted is on the board and we think that’s a pretty great pairing [for a food market]. 

“And we’re very proud to be involved with Honor Flight. As a family we feel very strongly about supporting our veterans, that’s just near and dear to our hearts,” Harris continues. “We just gave almost $185,000 to Honor Flights. That’s because our customers are incredibly generous and our employees get behind that campaign because they really believe in it. So we were able to send two full flights to Washington, D.C.”

During the rest of the year, Sendik’s responds to some immediate community needs. This year, the store and its customers contributed to the Zoological Society of Milwaukee’s capital campaign and the Charles E. Kubly Foundation to increase awareness of depression and prevent suicide. Penfield Children’s Center and ABCD (After Breast Cancer Diagnosis) also received financial support.

In the summer, Sendik’s invites community groups to grill just outside the store, selling burgers and brats to raise money for their organizations. School sports teams and groups like the Milwaukee Festival Chorus and West Allis Historical Society take advantage of that opportunity.

It’s the local sponsorships, though, that Harris really enjoys, like Mequon’s Cupcake Run for the schools, the Cancer Crush for Froedtert and the Medical College, and the Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving Day. These smaller donations, like the ice cream and toppings for a school’s ice cream social, echo back to the days when Harris’s dad took a few lemons and helped build a community. — Nan Bialek


WaterStone Bank
Doug Gordon

With 12 locations in the metro Milwaukee area, and a 13th one to open soon in Oak Creek, WaterStone Bank is happy to help enrich each of its surrounding communities.

In 2002, the bank formed the WaterStone Bank Foundation with the Waukesha County Community Foundation, which was created in 1999 to fund nonprofit organizations in the county. 

Each year, WaterStone donates around $750,000 to more than 250 nonprofits and causes in four target areas: education, women and children, community development and veterans initiatives. Recipients have included Milwaukee’s Sojourner Family Peace Center, a shelter for victims of domestic violence, and Secure Futures, a program which teaches financial literacy to teens in the area. The bank has also funded scholarships for local youths. 

“We feel it’s important to give back to the communities we serve,” says WaterStone president and CEO Doug Gordon, who has been with the bank since 2005. “We have a lot of great nonprofits doing great things.”

Gordon has also been a judge for “Rev-Up Milwaukee,” an annual “Shark Tank”-style competition in which local startups pitch ideas to investors for prize money and business resources. Past winners have included frozen dessert maker Pete’s Pops, restaurant Triciclo Peru and Hands in Harmony Piano Studio. 

WaterStone also sponsors many community events, including the Milwaukee Air and Water Show (“It’s a big honor to our active military and veterans,” Gordon says) and the annual Susan G. Komen walk to fight breast cancer. The bank also hosts bake sales and other fundraisers to benefit the community.

In addition to WaterStone’s charitable giving, bank employees receive time off to volunteer 600 hours a year for a local nonprofit or charity of their choice, such as Habitat for Humanity. Employees “participate in something near and dear to their hearts,” Gordon said.

He notes that as the bank expands and opens more branches in Southeastern Wisconsin, so will its reach of charitable giving. “We’re very happy with what we’re doing, and we’re going to continue to do what we do,” Gordon adds. —Catherine Jozwik 


Reinhart Boerner
Van Deuren s.c. 
Jerome Janzer

If you’re attending a charitable gala, volunteering at a fundraising walk/run, or working on the board of a nonprofit organization in Southeastern Wisconsin, chances are you’re familiar with Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren s.c. That’s because the law firm’s staff members contribute their time, talent and treasure to more than 120 area nonprofits annually.

Reinhart’s spirit of giving starts right at the top, with CEO Jerome M. Janzer.

“Our firm has always believed that not just working in the business community, but being part of the overall community is really part of what our mission is,” Janzer says. “We believe in making an impact, so we encourage our people not only to donate generously but to volunteer and provide in-kind contributions.”

Janzer contributes to a variety of organizations and says he finds them all rewarding in different ways. He is a trustee of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee and notes, “It is remarkable the good work they’re doing in providing a good place for young people.” He recently finished a four-year term as chairman of the board of the Marcus Performing Arts Center. In that position, he saw the role that the Marcus Center plays in not just providing a place to showcase the arts, but its commitment to inviting diverse community groups to the Center to use their space.

“I often get as much or more back from serving in those roles as I give,” Janzer says, “and I know that’s very much a culture in our firm as well.”

A “bonus” benefit of serving on nonprofit boards or in volunteer roles, particularly for young professionals, he notes, is the opportunity to network with people they might otherwise never have had the chance to meet.

“It’s also a place to showcase yourself,” Janzer says. “If you do a really good job, people get to see you and interact with you and see what you can contribute.”

The many beneficiaries of Reinhart’s generosity range from groups like Disability Rights Wisconsin to the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp. Janzer explains that the firm wants to make sure that it’s touching many aspects of community need. 

About $1 million in direct financial support was donated to various charities last year, with another 22,000 volunteer hours contributed by Reinhart staff, valued at about $4 million.

“I would encourage all businesses in town to give back to the community,” Janzer says. “It makes the city and the region a stronger place and at the same time it has a substantial benefit to your business and your colleagues who have a really good feeling when they contribute to this sort of thing.” — Nan Bialek



 
Potawatomi Hotel & Casino
Ryan Amundson

Some of the best moments for Ryan Amundson, spokesman for Milwaukee’s Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, occur when he and his colleagues pile into a shuttle bus. 

That bus is filled with impressive checks for dozens of local children’s charities, thanks to Potawatomi’s Heart of Canal Street campaign. “We take the checks out and deliver them personally,” Amundson says. “It’s a good way to get a front-row view on how this gift is going to help the organization and the people they provide service to.”

Now in its 26th year, Heart of Canal Street is Potawatomi’s signature community program. Since its inception, the annual campaign has raised more than $19 million for hundreds of nonprofits that directly serve children in Southeastern Wisconsin.

The money is raised primarily through the “Canal Street Game” during each of the four to five bingo sessions per day at the casino. Half of the proceeds from each game go to the winner of the game, and the remaining half goes into the fundraising effort. “Over the past several years, we’ve raised over $1.1 million annually,” Amundson notes. “One million was always our goal. We calculated that it would take over 6,000 games played in order to reach that goal. It’s our bingo guests’ generosity that really makes this thing go.”

For most of its history, Potawatomi itself did not have a say in which organizations received funding from the campaign. Instead, it relied solely on the choices of 10 local media sponsors and a random drawing of 20 qualified children’s programs to determine the recipients. But since 2015, Potawatomi has designated a “charity of choice” that receives a $100,000 check from Heart of Canal Street. This year, it’s Sojourner Family Peace Center.  

“I’m a big news and research junkie, so I like the process of choosing a charity of choice and helping leadership understand where the needs are and introducing them to people who are really doing something about the issues that are facing this community,” Amundson says.

The random drawing that determines the 20 children’s charities that receive a piece of the Heart of Canal pie is another inspiring moment for Amundson.

“I have a lot of respect for people who work in nonprofit, and sometimes you take for granted the work they do,” he explains. “To see them in the moment their organization is selected, it’s something. I’ve seen people with their arms raised in the air to tears. It’s really something else how much a gift like this means to them and to their organization, and to see the passion they have for what they do. It’s humbling.” — Nan Bialek 


Palermo’s 
Laurie Fallucca

In 1964, Gaspare and Zina Fallucca, Sicilian immigrants with little formal education, knew they still had exactly what they needed to succeed: each other and their families’ treasured recipes and passion for nurturing people. 

The pair opened a bakery on Milwaukee’s East Side and then an eatery for neighbors who clamored for more of their culinary talents. Their bread and pizza proved so popular that a local grocer begged them to craft frozen versions to sell in his store, and a multipronged company named for Zina’s hometown took shape. As the success of Palermo’s grew, the company’s support for Milwaukee and its people kept pace. “It’s really part of that Italian culture to be very giving and very hospitable,” says the Falluccas’ daughter-in-law Laurie Fallucca, who serves as chief creative officer for her family’s business. “Everything we do, the culture is reflected in giving back to the community. One of our slogans is ‘We unite and serve.’ And by uniting and serving, we feed the hungry and we help inner-city youth.”

Sitting in the company’s fragrant “Centro Di Innovation,” Laurie explains that while philanthropy is a company-wide effort, Palermo’s employs a full-time staff member devoted solely to stewardship, wrangling the company’s hundreds of monthly donations, and leading committee meetings to determine its 20 annual charitable collaborations. “It’s a full-time job to give away a-million-and-a-half pizza meals,” she beams, noting that the company opts for quality over quantity in those partnerships in order “to go deep with the people that we support. It’s really about relationships.”

In addition to weekly access to free pizza, Palermo’s offers its partners event space at the compound’s lovely Villa, use of its food truck, promotional guidance and other resources to make the year a success. “It really becomes ‘Hey, what do you need!” Laurie says, adding that Palermo’s also partners with state and local pro sports teams because their broad appeal “gets us even deeper into the community.” A new initiative, Palermo’s Score First for Families, saw the company donate 1,000 pizzas every time the Brewers scored first against their opponents, resulting in 38,000 meal donations during the critical summer months when school food programs close down. 

The company also works closely with River West Food Pantry, providing not just pizza but also manpower and education. “Their motto is basically that food is a way into people’s lives,” Laurie notes, “and once you get into people’s lives, you find out what their needs are, what they’re struggling with, how they would like us to help.” The pantry’s devotion to mentorship, she adds — offering not just food products, but garden space, cooking classes and other nutrition-centered education, and, above all, a sense of community — is very much in keeping with Palermo’s own mission, which also blooms via a variety of in-house initiatives.

Easter Baskets for the Hungry launched in 2008 and has since become an employee favorite. To date, the program has provided more than 615,000 pounds of ham, pizza meals and other food items to families in need. 

Affectionately known as “Team Verde,” the company’s multipronged environmental initiative scored its name from the Italian flag. “Being Italian we say, ‘It’s really easy for us to be red, white and green’ — so, that’s where Team Verde came from,” Laurie beams. The company participates in the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), a nationwide, nonprofit conservation organization, to ensure that their packaging is entirely recyclable and responsible. The effort also extends to Palermo’s Menomonee Valley home, which the company purchased in 2006 and began nurturing from Day One.  “We also decided we wanted to get more involved with education for the kids, so, in collaboration with the Urban Ecology Center, we built a beautiful ‘shack’ on our property,” Laurie explains. “[Kids] come in and learn about the environment because they get into the environment. They’re in the river. They’re playing in the mud. They’re doing everything that a kid should really do to give them that lifelong love of caring for the environment.”

Then she mentions another initiative that feeds some of Wisconsin’s other treasured residents — its farm animals. “We take all of our food waste — about 900 tons of food every year — and we give these to livestock farmers and it’s turned into feed. The circle of life, right?” she chuckles.

Finally, Laurie notes, an internal stewardship program rewards employees for individual charitable efforts, be it through a Palermo’s partnership program or a cause that is personally meaningful. “Employees want to be part of something bigger, something greater,” she stresses. “And we want them to be part of that family of just loving people and feeding people. It’s good. It’s all good.” — Lori Acken 


The Milwaukee Bucks Foundation 
Arvind Gopalratnam

Even when the team isn’t playing, the Milwaukee Bucks Foundation is focused on winning — especially when it comes to supporting charities and nonprofit organizations throughout Milwaukee and across the state. 

“It’s an exciting opportunity for myself and my team to be an extension of the organization on a day-to-day basis to support our community,” says Arvind Gopalratnam, vice president of corporate social responsibility. “The strategy is pretty simple: To be out of the office and understand the pulse of our community — meaning connecting yourself to organizations and start to learn and understand what their priorities and their needs are.” 

The foundation works with a wide variety of charities and nonprofits, including larger youth organizations such as Boys and Girls Clubs and Big Brothers Big Sisters, and smaller nonprofits such as Running Rebels; Safe & Sound, Inc.; and Playworks Wisconsin. Since 2016, more than $1.4 million in grants have been awarded to nonprofits all across the state.

“We rely very heavily on the interests and passions of our players, our coaching staff, the executives and employees on the team,” Gopalratnam says of the foundation’s multipronged selection process. “Where we have relationships, where different team members  all across the organization have relationships, we believe in developing those and continuing to expand them and evaluate ways we can grow our partnership to make a stronger impact in the community.”

Now in their fourth year, the foundation’s board picks an annual theme to help guide what type of organizations on which they will focus. Youth education and health and wellness are top priorities.“We are a sports team and being healthy and active is a big priority for a lot of our athletes as well as our employees,” Gopalratnam says. “Mentorship is another platform for us. We want every kid in our community to grow up with a mentor. Not enough kids have an adult that can help and guide them along the way.”

The Bucks Foundation works closely with corporate partners to achieve maximum impact for their efforts. “There’s a variety of different ways that we’re able to support nonprofits,” Gopalratnam says. “Each relationship is different based on the needs and their programming, and potentially the interests of our corporate partners.”

An example is the foundation’s emphasis on STEM education and related careers. 

“STEM education is a focus not only of corporate partners that we work with, but it’s a major focus and a challenge for a lot of our school districts,” says Gopalratnam. “Whether it’s math scores being lower or just general understanding of science, technology, engineering and math principles, we’ve heard that from not only local MPS school districts but school districts all around the state.”

As a result, the foundation adopted a program a few years ago called NBA Math Hoops, a math-based education game and corresponding curriculum that helps elementary school kids work on fundamental math skills each week and, at the same time, get further connected to the Bucks’ team and its players and statistics. NBA Math Hoops is currently implanted in 60 sites throughout Wisconsin. 

“Kids take a pretest at the beginning of the program. ...They go through a 12 to 15-week curriculum and then, at the end of the curriculum, they take a post-test to measure how much they’ve improved their math scores ,” Gopalratnam explains. 

The Bucks are one of about 20 NBA cities that have introduced the program. Nationally, an average 32-percent increase in math proficiency is reported for participants. In Wisconsin, Gopalratnam says, math proficiency has ticked upward into the 35 percent range.

“We’ve got a terrific partner with GE Healthcare, our sponsor for the program, because their core is professionals who have backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and math,” he notes. “To support the future generation of professionals that may potentially want to work in that field, it’s an awesome program for them to be involved in. Our employees volunteer at different schools to help facilitate the program. It has been incredibly impactful for us over the last couple of years and we continue to grow, year after year.” Joshua M. Miller MKE

 
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