History of UW Foundation

Fundraising was not organized in the early years of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but it did occur. Even into the early 20th century, private contributions were equated with private, not public institutions. Here’s a look at how philanthropy evolved at the UW-Madison.

The UW Foundation Timeline


James T. Lewis, a former Wisconsin governor, reportedly makes the first gift to UW-Madison: $100.


Cadwallader Washburn, a former regent and Wisconsin governor, receives credit for the first major gift: $43,000. It was used to finance the construction of Washburn Observatory.


Col. William Freeman Vilas, a law professor, lumberman, U.S. postmaster general, secretary of the interior and senator, leaves more than $1.8 million for the University.


UW-Madison alumnus and Chicago lawyer George I. Haight believes the University would benefit from a systematic fundraising plan, so he and others founded the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) in 1925. WARF handles University patents and uses the resulting royalties to support UW-Madison research.


Building Memorial Union gives rise to the first organized alumni fund drive.


Kemper K. Knapp, an alumnus and corporate lawyer, leaves the UW-Madison about $2.5 million.


Haight and others form a Gifts and Bequests Council “to encourage the growing practice of making gifts to the University.”

“The purposes for which said corporation is organized are exclusively educational and charitable as follows:

“To aid the University of Wisconsin by solicitation for the benefit of said University of gifts of real property or personal property, or both, from individuals, associations, corporations, or other entities.

To collect and receive gifts, bequests, devises or things of value, to accept the same, subject to such conditions and trusts as may be imposed theron, for the benefit of the University of Wisconsin, and to hold, administer, use of distribute the same, and to obligate itself and to execute and perform conditions or trusts, all for the benefit of the University of Wisconsin in the advancement of the scientific, literary and educational purposes thereof.”

From the UW Foundation Articles of Association, 1945

The beautiful campus of the University is presently set in a dingy frame. In the Lower Campus area are dozens of old rooming houses, small stores, cleaning and pressing shops, etc., buildings that have long outlived their usefulness and are most unsightly…

Picture in the place of this backward area… a group of new buildings facing a magnificently landscaped mall dedicated to the highest cultural objectives of the institution.

1945 UW Foundation campaign materials


The Council officially becomes known as the University of Wisconsin Foundation.
Haight is the first president.

Fewer than 1,000 donors give $95,378 the first year.


The Foundation organizes its first campaign (coordinated with the University’s centennial) to raise $5million to expand the lower campus.

Former Governor Oscar Rennebohm and Herb Kohler, president of the Kohler Company, are on the early board of directors.


Robert “Bob” Rennebohm, a UW-Madison alum and athlete and the governor’s nephew, becomes the first foundation executive director in 1955 – and president in 1980. He finishes the campaign to build the Wisconsin Center and support scholarships and faculty chairs.

Rennebohm sets the Foundation’s course to look at the role of the University in society and how the Foundation can serve both the University and its donors. His mission is to accomplish University goals, and the dollars raised reflect meeting those goals.

The Foundation begins to seek support from individuals, not just corporations, and receives gifts from 800 donors. Donors also can designate the Foundation as a beneficiary in their wills.


The Foundation organizes its annual fund.


The Foundation begins its corporate matching gift program.


The Foundation organizes its second capital campaign, to raise $3.5 million to build the Elvehjem (now Chazen) Museum of Art.


The Presidents Club is organized to recognize exceptional support for the University. (It becomes the Bascom Hill Society in 1977.)


A $2 million gift from A.C. and Gertrude Smith Nielsen helps build the indoor tennis stadium, then touted as the largest building of its kind in the world.


The Foundation establishes the Bascom Professorship program to encourage support for outstanding teachers and researchers.


The Forward With Wisconsin Campaign raises $18 million for projects, including the Southeast Recreational Facility, the new UW Hospital and several Bascom professorships.


The Foundation initiates a program to raise funds for individual campus constituencies.


The Telefund program begins.


Andrew “Sandy” Wilcox becomes the Foundation’s second president after Bob Rennebohm retires.


Foundation Vice President Martha Taylor establishes the Council on Women’s Giving, later known as the Women’s Philanthropy Council.


With 53,796 donors, the Campaign for Wisconsin raises $472 million in gifts and pledges to build Grainger Hall, remodel several campus buildings, establish 60 new endowments for faculty chairs and professorships, create more than 250 new scholarship and fellowship awards, fund research and support other campus needs.


John and Tashia Morgridge donate $3.5 million to create the Morgridge Center for Public Service and help renovate the Armory/Red Gym.


The Foundation moves into its new building at 1848 University Avenue.


By its 50th birthday, the Foundation raises more than $671 million in private support to benefit the UW-Madison.


Create the Future: The Wisconsin Campaign raises $1.86 billion for campus priorities and new building projects. It includes the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences BioStar initiative, the Wisconsin School of Business naming campaign, Engineering’s Leadership 2007 Campaign and the health sciences Health Star campaign.


The Great People. Great Place. Initiative, includes the Great People Scholarship Campaign to secure funding for need-based scholarships. The Foundation offers to match dollar for dollar all unrestricted Great People gifts up to $20 million and 50-cents to the dollar all scholarship gifts designated to a specific school, college or other campus unit.


Sandy Wilcox retires after 22 years as president and CEO of the Foundation.

Michael M. Knetter, former dean of the Wisconsin School of Business and UW-Madison vice chancellor for advancement, becomes the Foundation’s third and current president after Sandy Wilcox retires.