Eager to serve her new community, Donna Moreland became a groundbreaker.
Moreland, director of administration at the Madison office of Perkins Coie, an international law firm, was the first female African-American president of the Rotary Club of Madison, serving from July 2017 to the end of June 2018. She remains on the club’s board of directors, but next year will become an assistant district director for Rotary.
Finding herself in a leadership role in one of Rotary’s largest chapters is just part of the many turns her life has taken since growing up on Chicago’s South Side. She’s gone from jobs in Chicago to Memphis to the Nashville area, and eventually back to Chicago. Along the way she has had two children, and now has six grandchildren.
Moreland, 59, landed in Madison through a connection made while working as the office staff manager for a Chicago real estate firm. She got to know the executive director of Quarles & Brady, which was looking for a Chicago office. Eventually, he hired her as the firm’s office administrator, and she moved to Madison in 2002.
Moreland left Quarles after five years and worked for six years for what would later become Boardman & Clark. Then she saw an ad for a job at Perkins Coie, and even though she wasn’t looking, she applied.
“Just going through their website and seeing things they were doing in the community, that kind of spoke directly to me, the service aspect,” Moreland said. “So I sent in my resume and the rest is history. I’ve been here for five years.”
Many people work in one place for a long time, she said, “but for me, it’s about learning and growing. Especially in the office administration realm, there’s not a lot of upward trajectories. Being the executive director at Boardman there was nowhere for me to go because I’m not an attorney and I was in the top non-attorney job. So it’s just expanding my wings.”
Moreland first heard about Rotary from the secretary of Quarles’ managing partner, who sometimes would tell Moreland that the boss was “at his Rotary meeting.” Learning it was a service organization, Moreland became interested “because I’ve always done community service but it’s been either through a church or an organization that had a call out for people to volunteer.”
But to become a Rotary member one has to be nominated, and in 2008, two members sponsored her and she joined. At first, she said, she felt like she didn’t fit in.
“That was the biggest adjustment since I’ve been in Madison, joining the Rotary Club,” she said. The club was originally all-male, but in the mid-1980s had begun to admit women. And when she joined, the Madison chapter wasn’t very racially diverse, but she said that’s changed over time.
I think that we are being more intentional about asking people in the community. Right now you are supposed to be in some type of managerial position, a doctor, lawyer, something like that, in order to qualify to be in the group. I think that’s basically it. Sometimes you just have to be intentional about doing it, if that’s what you want. It is changing.
Coming to Madison, how did you find the adjustment?
I think I adjusted relatively quickly. The lack of diversity kind of surprised me, and it seemed to me that Madison was a little polarized at the time. But that’s never bothered me because I’ve found myself if not the only African-American in a company, one of one or two. So I guess I’m just used to it; it wasn’t that big of an adjustment.
What draws you to service?
I grew up in a home that was very spiritual. We went to church and we were always taught it’s not always about us. If someone is suffering, then we’re suffering. And if we’re blessed, the only way you can thank God for his blessings to you is to pass it on. And that’s something I’m trying to teach to my grandchildren and I taught to my children, and that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. The first thing I say is help me to be the best person that I can and help people you see through me.
What do you like about Rotary?
I like the opportunity to interact with other people, like-minded people, with service. At first, I was a little disappointed because for this to be a club focused on service we didn’t do a lot of hands-on (service). But the longer I stayed, we did do things in service but from a different perspective. So now we have a community service committee which is focused on hands-on service, and that I love.
— Interview by Ed Treleven