EagleHerald Staff Writer
MENOMINEE—As the M&M Area Community Foundation’s executive director, Paula Gruszynski understands the challenges small organizations face.
Many are strapped for cash and often don’t know how the foundation can assist them. For these groups, the community foundation comes through when larger organizations don’t.
“We are all volunteers,” said Alison Christy, a registered nurse who serves as a victim advocate at Menominee County Victim Services Unit, which has received funds from the community foundation.
The organization, which provides volunteer advocates trained in crisis intervention for victims of crimes and other crises and their families, relies on the M&M Community Foundation to provide funds for the backpacks it gives out with emergency supplies. “If there’s a car accident and children involved, the bags have little toys in them, so it takes care of them in the crisis situation,” Christy said.
It’s just one of the dozens of programs the community foundation embraces to help those in need. The foundation strives to increase its impact as it grows its asset base, and the strategy under Gruszynski’s leadership seems to be effective.
For the Victim Services Unit, the foundation funds are important. Unless an emergency situation is substantial enough to garner the Red Cross’s attention, which would be unusual in Menominee and Marinette counties, the area depends on the Victim Services Unit to respond, Christy said. “We respond to any kind of crisis situation,” Christy said, from homicides and suicides to car accidents. “We respond as a team. We will go and be the support system for the people until they can get their own system in place.”
The M&M foundation “has been just wonderful in walking beside us and just supporting us,” Christy said.
To expand the foundation’s impact in the community, Gruszynski reaches out and asks larger organizations for support, a new tactic for the foundation that serves Marinette and Menominee counties.
But raising funds is only part of the equation. Gruszynski isn’t afraid to pick up the phone and call a local grant applicant and tell them to do it over.
“An application should never be denied because they didn’t give us the right information or the right application,” she said. “Once a year, I’ll call a new organization and say, ‘I really think you need to start over. If I put this through, I bet you’re not going to get funded. You don’t have the strongest application I know your organization can make.’”
They almost always take her advice, Gruszynski said, who started her career as a teacher.
Gruszynski, who grew up in Green Bay and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said, “I never thought I wouldn’t be a teacher. I loved teaching.” She taught high school students with cognitive difficulties for 17 years and started community-based job training for high school students.
Then she worked in Democratic politics for 13 years in community engagement and was a state field director before she started at the community foundation in February 2015. She wasn’t a fundraiser, but walked in many parades, she said.
She soon learned how to ask for money, so in turn she could give it to worthwhile causes. In her first year, she received an email from a Michigan health fund announcing a grant she thought the community foundation might put to good use in the community. The board at the time told her, “We’re not sure you fully understand how we operate. We give grants. We don’t ask for them.”
But Gruszynski persuaded them to change the way they operated. “So we applied. The most we could ask for was $27,000, and we got it,” she said. The new opportunity brought funds into the community that weren’t from community members.
“I’m an optimist and I believe that kind of leadership has helped us to move from $8 million to $13 million to whatever is next,” she said.
Jackie Kamps, the foundation’s board president, confirmed the assets have increased because of Gruszynski’s leadership. “You build your assets by increasing your impact. When you increase your impact in the community by doing this, you expand your visibility and from there assets build.”
Kamps attributes much of the foundation’s broader impact to Gruszynski’s vivaciousness. “Paula goes out and about,” Kamps said. “That Paula face and smile, that can get people’s attention.”
Gruszynski’s optimistic approach has paid off in new relationships. “Quite a few more people know about us now. Paula’s got that way. It’s not just about raising money. She’s gone all over Marinette and Menominee counties and talked to all different people—school boards, banking, investment. She’s met and greeted these people.”
She also excels at recruiting volunteers for various committees. Kamps, whose two-year board president term started in September, first became involved with the foundation by serving as a volunteer on the marketing committee and became a board member two years ago. Among the other volunteers Gruszynski has put to good use is her husband, Stan, now retired. He served as U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development State Director for Wisconsin under President Obama. He is a former state representative and a current Marinette County supervisor.
Over the past several months, the Community Foundation has announced grants and programs that demonstrate its breadth.
Bark River—Harris Schools received a $3,000 grant from the foundation’s Women’s Giving Circle Endowment Fund to launch a “Literary Ladies” book club for upper elementary, junior high and high school students this school year.
The foundation established the Dina Johnson Meissner Memorial Fund to help convert historic newspaper archives to digital assets searchable online.
It’s providing Safeguarding our Communities harm-reduction training to combat opioid overdoses in Marinette and Menominee counties, through $60,000 in funds the foundation received from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan in collaboration with Vital Strategies. A training for Menominee Woman’s Club members is scheduled for Oct. 27.
But Gruszynski said the project she’s currently most excited about is a financial literacy program called the Future Fund, designed to help area students pay for post high school education or training. Every kindergarten student in Marinette and Menominee counties will receive a Future Fund bank account and a $50 gift from the community foundation to get it started. “It’s about the community foundation telling every single kindergarten kid, ‘We believe in you and you have to be something. You should start thinking about what you want to be.’”
The program, which is expected to include 1,800 children this school year, is designed to build over time. “Every year as we go along, the kids will get an incentive,” Gruszynski said. First-graders receive $5 and a small piggy bank, besides the $50 they started with.
A gift of $176,750 from KK Integrated Logistics is designed to provide funding for the program’s first five years, but Gruszynski hopes to raise $1 million for the fund.
By watching their savings grow, research suggests students in similar programs have achieved higher math scores than students without savings accounts. Those with dedicated savings accounts for education also are four times more likely to graduate from a post-secondary program than those without.
Kamps said the M&M Community Foundation supports the program “Because they’ve proven that even just having a small college fund or savings fund helps people further their education after high school, and it just gives kids a reason to save, a place to save,” she said. “A lot of people do not think about it. Grandma gave me money, what do I do with it? Spend it on candy or put it in the bank?”
Asked what she likes best about her role, Gruszynski said, it’s working for this particular board of directors. “This composition of board members isn’t driven by how many assets we have but by the impact we have in the community. And that’s a pretty significant shift. Are you chasing dollars or measuring impact?”
Kamps agreed the focus should be on helping people in the communities the foundation serves and “not just worrying about what money you can bring in and grant out.”
To accomplish this, Kamps said, “It is going out and looking for new adventures, new needs for the community.”