In 1986, a group of individuals associated with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources embarked on a journey to seek alternative funding for its programs, supplementing the scarce and diminishing financial resources appropriated through legislated channels. This is the fascinating story of that successful venture. Written by Ron Semmann, co-founder, first executive director, and Emeritus Board Member. 

Sufficient funding for public programs has always been difficult.  Perhaps that is the way it should be, ensuring the taxpayer that public monies are not being thrown at government agencies in a willy-nilly fashion. In the 1970s and 80s, this was clearly the case for state and local natural resource agencies in Wisconsin and across the country. States such as Missouri were experimenting with a sales tax spin-off and other states looked at voluntary contribution efforts to keep their programs going. Private tax sheltered 501 (C) (3) foundations were becoming viable alternative adjuncts to scarce public funding.

In 1985, I was appointed to the position of administrator in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Office of Planning and Analysis. The OPA was the budgetary, finance and planning arm of the DNR. In my job description, compiled by Secretary C.D. Besadny and Deputy Secretary Bruce Braun, a one liner stood out: Seek alternative funding. We knew that a leading option to do so could be a private non-profit natural resources foundation.

An early but primary question related to the feasibility and practicality of a foundation. One way, and perhaps the best way to answer this question was to see if other states had tried this or a similar approach. After contacting many of the states, we discovered that about 14 had foundations ranging from fledglings to moderately successful creations. That was enough to give us a personal green light to give it a try. Secretary Besadny, Deputy Secretary Braun and Executive Assistant Linda Bochert agreed.

The DNR was directed by a policy board at that time, and its approval was necessary and practical if we were to achieve backing and success. We developed a “Policy Green Sheet” as an outline of what we were planning. Besadny immediately bought into the outline but wanted to get DNR Board Chair John Lawton’s tacit approval. It was an exciting moment when we pulled him off the vacation beach in Florida to get his reaction to the proposal, which we immediately received in the form of a “go for it.” The next month saw a formal proposal to the full DNR board with a concurring approval. The green light gave us the momentum for developing Articles of Incorporation, by-laws, and thinking about prospective foundation board members.

As we moved ahead, we had to focus on what we envisioned would be the value of this new organization. Would it extend beyond the domain of just the DNR and its programs? What about the needs of the hundreds of local conservation organizations?  Would the public contribute by setting aside its private resources to leave endowments for the good of the whole? Could this organization be a banker for some of the conservation activities of other organizations? All these and other questions, waiting to be answered, gave us the momentum to charge on.

The next formative steps required some pointed action. At one point in my career I served as chief administrative officer for the Wisconsin Department of Justice. The office adjoining mine housed Deputy Attorney General Dave Hanson, who had gone on to a partnership in a prominent law office, Michael, Best, and Friedrich. I called Dave and threw a challenge at him. How would he like to help us write those articles and by-laws? As fortune had it, he agreed, adding that he had a new attorney working for him, Tom Klancnik, who would be able to help us. Dave and Tom turned out to be a timely treasure, getting the job done in great fashion.

To get incorporated, we knew we had to identify some interested parties who would be willing to serve as incorporators and probably board members. Selecting them for the new organization was an exciting challenge. Lawton, Besadny and I met on several occasions to identify names. The following were placed on the table, with the absolute stipulation that politics and partisanship would not be a part of our game plan:

-Collins Ferris, President of United Bank in Madison, as an incorporator.
-Robert Pohl, past Vice President of La Salle Bank, Chicago, as an incorporator. Pohl had seen an article in the Milwaukee Journal about the Foundation’s potential creation and volunteered to help.
-Donald Anderson, President of Viking Insurance, Wisconsin Sportsman.
-Nash Williams, retired vice president of General Casualty Insurance and an avid trouter.
-Paul Hasset, former president of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Assn.
-Daniel Flaherty, prominent LaCrosse attorney, avid fisherman, and NRB member in the ‘70s who often recalled his comments at NR board meetings regarding the potential for a private corporation to raise money for the DNR.

To our amazement, all immediately agreed to serve as the founding group of board directors, even though at this point we had not yet met as a group. The next step in the process required getting incorporated as a non-profit organization. With draft Articles in hand, we marched over to the Secretary of State’s office and in relatively short time received our certification. That was on July 24, 1986. The same was true with the Department of Revenue and the Internal Revenue Service, a necessity for non-profits. Getting acceptable approval from them would eventually be coming, but in the interim, we had to keep moving.

An additional factor had to be considered: auditability of the organization. We reasoned that donors would want to be assured that contributed funds were being handled in a completely legal manner and under appropriate accounting standards. For visibility purposes, I thought a nationally regarded firm had to be engaged. We hired Arthur Anderson, a well-known group with a good reputation. It became the Auditor of Record, giving us a feeling of security and a modicum of advice. Their involvement with us was somewhat short lived, however, as they began to come apart at the seams at a national level.

The first formal meeting of the new board was on Sept. 19, 1986, at a suite in the Concourse Hotel in Madison. All of the above mentioned attended, in addition to Besadny, Lawton, myself, and Jerilyn Dahmen, my personal secretary, who would also serve as the new board’s secretary. The business of the first meeting consisted of informal discussion of our Articles, By-Laws, mission, and selection of a board chair, Paul Hasset. We also discussed the name we had given to the organization. Ferris, emphasizing his role as an incorporator, felt strongly that we had to stick with Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin. It was the best identifier of who we were.

So, by fall of 1986, we had a structure in place to perform good deeds for the environmental wellbeing of Wisconsin, whatever that meant. Now the challenge would be to formulate a real mission, identify a direction, find out how we fit into the global picture of conservationism, raise money, and make grants.  No small task for a microcosm work force— essentially Jerilyn and me.

Good fortune smiles at one occasionally at the most unsuspecting times. The first happened when Martin Henert entered the picture. Marty was running the DNR’s Facility Management operation. He indicated he was aware of some limited-term funding that might be used to hire a fundraising assistant for the new organization. Knowing this was essential—we had the good fortune of hiring Barb Barzen, a young fledgling, but knowledgeable conservationist, whose husband worked for the International Crane Foundation. Barb would become the fundraiser, grants processor, and jack-of-all-trades for an organization that had not yet determined its exact calling.

About the same time, Marty Henert approached the DNR secretary with a request that he, Marty, serve as an assistant administrator under me, with an emphasis on the care and feeding of the Foundation’s growing pains.  Besadny approved Marty’s request and soon we sensed we had the development of an operating team that could turn a dream into reality: It was Marty, Jeri, Barb and me– a TEAM! To get the ball rolling, Marty and I began making contacts with other Foundation directors. We heard that Iowa seemed to have a working operation, so we traveled to Des Moines to find out their secrets, if any. We contacted the UW Foundation and spent a day pulling answers out of Bob Rennebohm, the successful president of the UWF. We made a variety of other contacts, each giving us a little more information upon which to build our battleground.

We knew that money to pay for the new organization’s needs could be problematic. It was essential that the Foundation’s expenses be paid out of private donations. Not surprisingly, DNR employees quickly came to the fore with $15, $25 and $50 gifts. One of the early hundred dollar donations came from DNR’s deputy secretary. All were welcome but the real financial breakthrough came when past DNR board member Tom Fox gave us five acres of land that we quickly converted to $25,000 cash. That, plus the gifts from the NRF’s board, gave us a hefty and healthy shove in the right direction.

As I noted, one of the concerns was the clear separation of private and public expenditures. Was the provision of office space for the new NRF stepping into the domain of publicly protected money? What about phone usage? At one point early on I received a call from my friend Dale Cattanach, the head of the Legislative Audit Bureau, who advised that we must maintain separation of expenditures. That good advice, and the concern we ourselves had, prompted a statutory and Natural Resources Administrative Code review. The result was a modification to the code, which authorized the use of certain government services if the expending organization was a “friend” to the organization. In other words, did the organization exist in whole or part to serve the state agency, in this case the DNR? It seemed that would solve the problem as long as we would not unreasonably overextend ourselves. I feel that principle follows today.

At the outset, the most commonly asked question was about the tangible purpose of the Foundation. It was a given that its mission was to find additional financial resources for the DNR. But that alone caused heartburn for some donors, specifically some new board members. Since the DNR was not the most beloved state agency in Wisconsin, why not give money, if we actually raised some, directly to local conservation groups? That thinking led to what I call the “flagship principle.” In other words, we would not have to decide generally where the money would go if we all agreed on a specific and necessary project. To some, that would give us clear direction, enabling potential donors to identify with needs and hence fork over the money.

There was a bit of truth to that thinking because early on the Mott Applesauce people gave us $3,000 if we were to put it into prairie seeds. But the board agreed that that was not really our hot-button. Other projects surfaced, but with little enthusiasm. And so, almost every board meeting in the first years included a spontaneous discussion of a really meaningful flagship project, one that would carry the banner for our identity, and make us big and famous.

In the late 1980s, the DNR was experimenting with the concept of reintroducing trumpeter swans into our Midwest flyway. These magnificent birds disappeared from Wisconsin around 1892 for a variety of reasons, and the goal was to develop 20 breeding pair by the year 2000. Sumner Matteson, the DNR’s chief avian biologist in charge of the project, approached me with the request that the Foundation seek and accept funding for this project. Serving as executive director of the Foundation, I took the idea to the board. They seemed to love it and soon this clearly became our “flagship project.”

By 1990, we were developing into a more formal structure, and one could sense a degree of permanence. Volunteer support was there with marketing efforts by Holly Kuusinnen, DNR’s public information specialist, and general help from Greg Samp, a budget analyst. DNR’s legal services staff pitched in. In the meantime, the board pushed to add new members, believing that more directors would bring in more funds. New project ideas surfaced. Some of them became reality. New staff was added and board committees were formalized. There existed a sense of accomplishment and pride.

What happened in the years ahead was monumental.  I temporarily left the organization because of an appointment as deputy secretary of the DNR. Marty Henert took over the reins as executive director.  He was followed by Laurie Osterndorf, Charlie Luthin and now Ruth Oppedahl. Each moved the Foundation to a new, expansive and successful plateau. With staff, they each added new permanent programs and new goals.

Success came in the form of a well-recognized Field Trip Program, a C.D. Besadny Conservation Grant Program, support for states natural areas, numerous specialized endowment funds, the management of escrowed  funds for state clean-up projects, a Birdathon, millions of dollars to the DNR, and most recently funding for the new Cherish Wisconsin  Outdoors Fund. And the list goes on.

In addition to outstanding management leadership, the Foundation was fortunate to have dedicated board members, officers and chairs, each adding to the Foundations value. Todd Tiefenthaler and  Scott Hassett as chairs did their part to continue operations. Bruce Braun, ever energized with special leadership skills, and U.W. Stevens Point’s Diane Humphrey Lueck fulfilled a need to support and lead staff with their expertise as conservationists. I also had the privilege of serving a several-year term.

Imagine now going back to 1986 when the decision to take on the challenge of a new funding innovation was analyzed for its potential to pay off. Would the thousands of hours of invested time be worth it? In this case, it was, because the gifts of time and expertise of so many people since 1986 brought in the rewards of success. Thanks to every one of them!