meet the mcginnitys: laying a strong foundation for milwaukee’s future

A few weeks ago, I was very excited to read in The Atlantic how a person can make a great difference in the world. This area of study assesses “effective altruism.”

Effective altruism: a philosophy and social movement which applies evidence and reason to determining the most effective ways to improve the world

Betsy, Annie and Megan

The McGinnitys use a systems approach to their foundation and would love to incubate newer, smaller nonprofits, and then help them along a pipeline to midrange and eventually larger foundations for funding. They’re on a quest for the answers: “What difference does this make? How do we know?”

My heart broke a teeny bit when I read what these scientists believe about how to make the biggest difference. Work for a nonprofit that aligns with your life goals? Nah. Instead, they say to get a job that makes great money and donate (a significant percentage) to possibly even fund an entire salary. That’s how you do it. Well, shoot.

I looked into a bit of what I’ll call “actual altruism”: 95.4 percent of Americans donated to nonprofits in 2014, a 7.1 percent increase from 2013. The average person donates about 2-3ish percent of their income to nonprofits, depending on how much money they make. That is generous, kind and necessary, and it makes me think of Jazz when she said how nonprofits and other organizations create the infrastructure and resources that enable policies to actually get boots on the ground. These organizations and their donors are vital.

Some people have a little extra panache when it comes to making the biggest difference in their community. The McGinnity family of Milwaukee—grown daughters Megan, Betsy, Annie and Katie, and parents Tom and Maggie—launched the McGinnity Family Foundation in winter 2014. All four daughters grew up as part of a Greater Milwaukee Foundation youth in service program, now incorporated into Lead2Change. The program empowered them to give out grants of up to $2,500 at a time, up to a total of $100,000 over Annie’s four years of high school, for example. And it developed in the sisters a culture of philanthropy. Now the family of six gives grants to improve their community, which affects both their inheritance (less for them) and impact on this world (far beyond when they’re here).

McGinnitys in the Sunflowers

“The Foundation reminds me of ‘direction walks’ we took when we were little,” Annie says. “Dad would leave the house with us and a pocket full of peanut M&Ms, and when we got to a corner we’d get an M&M and could choose which direction we’d go in. Half an hour later who knows where we’d end up. Hey—it was youth led!”

Proud graduates of Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), Megan is a social worker in MPS, Betsy is a high school counselor in MPS, Annie oversees citywide programs with Milwaukee Recreation, and Katie works for SC Johnson in sales in Minneapolis. The foundation focuses on youth-led programs that engage the community (1) in easing the transition for those with disabilities from K-12 to the rest of their lives and (2) in ecological sustainability.

People with Panache: Why did you decide to start a foundation?

Tom McGinnity: Part of it was spending 40 years in education. We were looking for aspects of: Who are the disenfranchised? Whose voices aren’t being heard? Collectively we’re missing the voice of youth. A school system like Milwaukee Public Schools has 80,000 voices that aren’t being heard, and they might have incredible ideas of what and how change could happen.

“Children should be seen and not heard” needs to be flipped around for awhile. I’m not overly impressed with what we’ve been able to accomplish as adults, and I want to give kids a shot.

Megan Wright: After Mom and Dad retired, they had the idea of a foundation and brought it to us, so we can impact our community beyond when we’re all here.

“It’s pretty easy to get discouraged, but this is an opportunity to help kids who truly deserve better.” —Betsy McGinnity

PWP: As a very fortunate person who works for Victory Garden Initiative, one of your first grant recipients, I know you’re in your first grant cycle. So far, what are you most proud of?

Annie Kubes: One cool part was sitting around this room and all having the opportunity to give input about what types of causes and what focus areas we would target in terms of grants. My husband and our brothers-in-law were here as well. We were able to pick issues we’re passionate about and have experience with—with real people who have faced real issues. Doing a really small part in helping to address some of those was empowering.

PWP: What’s it like working together as sisters?

Megan, Katie, Betsy and Annie

“We’re proactive, not reactive,” says Megan. We picked this picture to include Katie, who lives in Minneapolis.

Megan: We’ve known each other our whole lives, so we can really highlight each others’ strengths and weaknesses. We’re all out there in the field, seeing what we can fund. For example, Katie has a business mind and has connected us with a company that turns food waste into garden products, so there will be more conversations about getting those products to those we’ve funded.

Betsy McGinnity: We all share a passion for serving others, so it’s really made getting together and talking about foundation stuff very meaningful time together. It’s much deeper, and obviously the mission of our parents, too—it’s how we were raised.

Tom: When we all can get together, typically we have a meeting as part of that. It goes a little deeper than most families might go.

Betsy: There are a lot of needs in Milwaukee, and a lot of times our roles can get pretty hard. It’s nice to meet needs and provide hope. It’s pretty easy to get discouraged, but this is an opportunity to help kids who truly deserve better.

PWP: I can tell. It’s touching just being near you, knowing you have such big hearts for others and get to work on this together! What makes you happiest?

Megan: I would say my happiest is when I’m rocking on Mom and Dad’s porch. My daughter, husband and I will hang with whoever’s home, just chatting it up and enjoying the great things the city has to offer.

Betsy: For me at work—we’re a newer high school so we’ve just had our third graduating class—it’s when alumni come back or are in college or successful, because these students are part of an underserved population. In general, I think we all share that we’re happiest being with family, and our annual trip to Door County.

Annie: I would third family. It’s always been top on my list. I think now though one of my greatest joys is watching our parents as grandparents.

Tom and Finn

Tom playing with Annie’s son, Finn. Maggie was a special ed teacher, coached and ran Special Olympics and has taught adaptive aquatics at the YMCA for 32 years. When Annie started volunteering with her, that helped launch her passion and career!

And then work-wise this summer, this is the 9th year of an inclusive basketball league we started when I was part of an adaptive athletics program—males with and without disabilities play together. Some have been there every year. This year two of them are coaching. When I visited recently, one was standing alongside the court, cheering for the underdogs. You can’t make that stuff up. You hear about all the violence and it’s so terrifying, but this gives you hope.

Maggie: They could’ve chosen a different path–easily—and they didn’t. I tell this to my daughters now…

Megan: Oh Mom, you can tell them that I’m your favorite!

[Everyone laughs]

Maggie: …it’s having everyone around the dining room table, truly.

Tom: It’s always been watching everyone kind of unfold. I think that’s been our philosophy as we’ve been a family.

If you’re looking to make a difference for and with Milwaukee’s youth, please email us to get Tom’s email and donate to the McGinnity Family Foundation!

[Photos by Alysse.]

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