When Seamus Fitzgerald gets hold of an idea, he doesn’t let go easily.
Fitzgerald, a senior from Hartford, Wisconsin, majoring in community and nonprofit leadership at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was working for the UW Foundation’s Annual Giving Telefund operation in 2010 when he applied for the Foundation’s first-ever summer internships. He secured one of the three spots.
“I started looking at student philanthropy efforts at universities around the country, everything from simple things like class gifts to full-blown student foundations,” he said. “I found 15 to 20 examples of student philanthropy across the whole spectrum. Some of these were good ideas, and some didn’t seem to work as well.”
One idea that stuck with Fitzgerald was a student foundation. “I’m kind of hot-blooded and a fast mover, so I wanted to see how we could get something going here on campus,” he said.
Fitzgerald developed the idea with the help of Annual Giving staff like Kara Luedtke, the associate director. He presented his plan to then-President Sandy Wilcox.
“He just had so many ideas,” Wilcox said. “Seamus is so enthusiastic, and he’s a good organizer.” Wilcox noted that there long had been a desire at the Foundation to educate students about the impact of philanthropy on campus. “But it had to come from the students,” he said. “Top down doesn’t work.”
Wilcox brought the idea to the UW Foundation Board of Directors. “I simply said this was a good idea,” he said. “They were all for it.”
The Board directed $10,000 to the startup of the UW Student Foundation. “We are interested in fostering the notion of development at the earliest possible point in the life of a future alum,” Board Chair Fran Taylor said. “We have developed good relationships with students who have worked at the UW Foundation over the years. They grasp the importance of private support and after graduation have become some of our most engaged young alumni.
“The Board has a long-standing interest in fostering among students an understanding of what private support makes possible,” she said. “The Student Foundation is a logical extension of the work we do on behalf of the University.”
Starting to grow
Once the Student Foundation was approved, Fitzgerald recruited some co-workers and friends to be its first members. Fellow Telefund student and UW Foundation intern Holly Hartung was among them, along with Peter Hoeschele and Connor Killian.
“We didn’t have a constitution or mission statement,” Fitzgerald said. “We had a lot of work to do. Looking back, it seems easy, but it’s not.”
The group launched a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a website, studentfoundation.wisc.edu. “It was important that we were an ‘.edu,’” Fitzgerald said. “That gives us credibility.”
The first year saw the group holding weekly meetings, appearing at the Student Organizational Fair, taking part in the All-Campus Party, co-hosting events with the Wisconsin Alumni Student Board and running a mini ad campaign in the Daily Cardinal trumpeting “Badgers Backing Badgers.”
“Going to the UW-Madison is an incredible opportunity, and I think it comes with an incredible responsibility as well,” Fitzgerald said. “We get to earn a degree from an exceptional place. I mean, we’re talking about the top 1 percent of universities in the world. I think we need to give back to the community and to the place that made it possible.”
The Student Foundation became a registered student organization and secured space in the Student Activities Center in East Campus Mall. “It gives us legitimacy, a place to be, a presence, and there’s a conference room next door we have reserved for meetings each Thursday,” he said.
At the start of the semester, the Student Foundation had about 500 people attend its first open house. “We had about 30 people apply to be members, and we accepted about 18, which gives us about 25 active members,” Fitzgerald said. “It was the first time that we had a lot of people I didn’t recruit personally.”
In the summer of 2011, he and Hoeschle attended a Council for Advancement and Support of Education conference in Tennessee. “It was incredibly beneficial to us to hear about organizations that have been successful and others like ours that are just getting off the ground,” he said.
Hartung, a senior from Menasha, Wisconsin, majoring in journalism and communication arts, said she readily volunteered when asked. “I saw Seamus working on his project, and I was really excited about it,” she said.
The Student Foundation is focused on raising awareness of how much private support means to the University. “What we want to do is educate students about the alumni and friends of the University and what they are doing to help campus and students,” Fitzgerald said.
That can be tricky, Hartung said. “There are some students who, when you start talking about the budget or money, they shut down right away,” she said. “But if you go about it the right way, they’ll listen and are genuinely surprised by how the University is funded. Specific examples of what giving has done resonate the best.”
“It’s great that there are other students excited to get our message across,” she added. “We have a pretty solid core.”
The Student Foundation took part in 2011 homecoming activities, and it has had a presence on campus with Philanthropy Fridays, making direct contact to spread the word. At the end of the fall semester, the group joined forces with Wisconsin Alumni Student Board to use social media to support the Great People Scholarship.
Now seniors, Fitzgerald and Hartung are working to establish a foothold for the Student Foundation as they groom successors to lead the organization.
“We’ll be doing some digital engagement campaigns on Facebook and Twitter,” Fitzgerald said. “We want to build some traditions, create a signature event that students look forward to. We’ll also be looking for a successor to lead the group so we have a seamless transition.”