Bob Sorge is in charge of a big pot of money that has given its support to projects as diverse as establishing a computer lab at Centro Hispano of Dane County to creating the new Madison Opera Center to providing a permanent fund for outdoor education at the county’s parks.
Sorge is president of the Madison Community Foundation, a nonprofit that manages more than $160 million and handed out $10 million in grants in 2014.
A native of Burlington, in southeast Wisconsin, Sorge has spent his professional life working in nonprofits. It wasn’t a career path he planned when Sorge — the youngest of five children whose father was a veterinarian and mother was a social worker — came to the UW-Madison. Virtually all of his family, for three generations, had come here.
“I have joked that I didn’t know there was an alternative,” he said.
Sorge earned a degree in communication arts and a master’s in business administration. What put him on the nonprofit track was nabbing a spot as an intern at the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau. As part of the job, he helped coordinate the Taste of Madison, the annual fall festival of local restaurant favorites around the Capitol Square.
“The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra asked if I would help coordinate Concerts on the Square and it sounded like fun,” he said. Sorge stayed with the Chamber Orchestra for 17 years, 15 as executive director.
The Madison Community Foundation brought Sorge on in 2007 as vice president of strategic partnerships and named him president in 2013.
“I feel tremendously honored,” said Sorge. “Every day, I think: We have the opportunity to really have an impact on this community. And people have trusted us with these resources. That’s an honor and it is a responsibility.”
Sorge and his wife, Lisa, are the parents of two teenage sons.
Q: What do you see as the role of the Madison Community Foundation?
A: The Madison Community Foundation builds and protects the legacies of people who want to leave something for a community they love. It’s an act of optimism. Someone says: I love this community and I want to leave resources that help people today, tomorrow and for a long time to come.
In 1991, Marie Graber (whose family started the former Graber Industries, now Springs Window Fashions, in Middleton) left $15 million to the foundation without restrictions on its use.
That fund has distributed $24 million into our community since then. Even with the economic downturn (that started in 2008), there is still more money in that fund today than it had when she left the gift.
Q: How did the Madison Community Foundation get its start?
A: The Madison Community Foundation dates back to 1942. It was formed as the Madison War Chest whose purpose was to support veterans returning from World War II. Shortly after that, Congress passed the GI Bill, so the resources intended for local veterans were no longer necessary in that form.
There are about 700 community foundations around the country now, with about half of them formed in the last 15 years. Cleveland had the first; it turned 100 years old in 2014. Chicago’s just turned 100.
Each community foundation was started for different reasons and evolved differently. The original community foundations, including Madison’s, are based on endowments. People love their community and want to leave a gift for it, and we serve as the steward. As the community has different needs and challenges, we are able to respond.
Q: How do you decide who gets grants from the foundation?
A: One of the stories that’s not often told is that about 80 percent of our distributions each year are directed by endowments that people create. We are protecting the interest of donors and their legacies.
Every other allocation has to be approved by our board of directors. That amounted to about $2 million worth last year.
We have a competitive grant process. People can apply for funding in any of seven areas: the arts; environment; children; elderly; community development; organization capacity development; and learning.
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Q: How does the Madison Community Foundation differ from United Way of Dane County?
A: United Way focuses on basic services including food, shelter and clothing. We tend to focus on assets such as arts and the environment.
In the areas of children and community development, there is some overlap. We don’t want to duplicate their value; they don’t want to duplicate ours.
They do annual fund-raising and make distributions to dozens of agencies. The vast majority of our grants are from assets we already have on hand.
Typically, we don’t actively fund-raise. But in 2001, we did hold a campaign to help the arts organizations that would be residents of the (then new) Overture Center, so they could afford to rent space and strengthen their programming. Coordinated by the Madison Community Foundation, $46 million was raised.
Q: Who handles the Madison Community Foundation’s investments? Do you have staff for that or do you contract with any local investment firms?
A: We have two investment pools. The vast majority is invested through Commonfund in Danbury, Connecticut, in a broadly diversified portfolio. We also use Walden Asset Management, Boston, for a socially responsive portfolio.
Q: How do you decide how much money to give out each year?
A: The board determines our spending policy each year. It has varied between 4.75 percent and 5 percent of assets on hand since the 1980s.
Q: Leading an organization that hands money to worthwhile causes must be a satisfying feeling. Is there anything the Madison Community Foundation has done that gives you special pride?
A: We were looking at racial issues in Madison and something (the) Rev. Alex Gee said was compelling to us. He said, “We need to have people of color at the table to set the agenda.” So we gave an initial grant to the Justified Anger coalition of $25,000.
We have given $300,000 to the Clean Lakes Alliance to help with their goal of reducing phosphorus in Dane County lakes.
Systems change is big for us. For example, rather than giving food to food pantries, we brought them together and bought them refrigeration units so they are able to accept more fresh produce.
Q: Do you like being in the nonprofit world?
A: Very much so. My skills transfer well. I am very organized and I love strategic planning, and I love budgets. I think sometimes people get tired of hearing me say the two words, effective and efficient. That’s just how I think.
Q: What did you enjoy about your work with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra?
A: Even though I took piano and trumpet lessons as a child and played cornet in the middle and high school band, at the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, I learned a lot about classical music and developed a deep appreciation for it.
I also learned the concept of unique value. Once, when I was listening to a concert at First Congregational Church, I could feel my pew vibrating with the sounds made by one cellist. At the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, you have a virtuoso in every seat.
Q: Where does the Madison Community Foundation go from here?
A: We would like to open the doors so that anybody can leave a legacy to the community. You don’t need to leave $15,000 for a permanently endowed fund in your name. You can give a gift of any size and pool it with other contributions. Imagine how the endowments would grow.