2022 Executive of the Year: Michael Johnson is resigned to serve

Feature Eoy Michael Johnson Panel
Photo by Shawn Harper

Register to attend the Executive of the Year awards and reception on Tuesday, Jan. 18.

When a pandemic was declared in March 2020, Michael Johnson was prepared to resign as president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County. Concerned about the pandemic’s impact on the organization’s finances, he made the offer in a letter to the board president, and it was the first time in his life that he was happy to be asked if he was “out of his mind.”

“I was just nervous,” Johnson recalls. “I didn’t want to lay people off and I was worried about our kids and then worried about my own health. My wife was really concerned about me being out, especially during that first month of COVID.”

His ability to pivot in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic not only served the community, but it also earned him a 2022 Executive of the Year Award. Johnson was one of six people selected for this honor by a judging panel of previous EOY winners.

The pivot
Johnson was talked out of resigning, but the Boys & Girls Clubs still had to close, and a pivot ensued to serve others in need — people whose needs were about to become more acute because of the pandemic. Instead of remaining idle, Johnson led the organization in raising $425,000 for 39 local nonprofits to cover the essential needs of those most affected by COVID-19. Nearly 75,000 care boxes were provided to local families, 43,000 meals were provided to young people due to school closures, and more than 16,400 meals were delivered to senior citizens.

The philanthropic tally also included 7,900 emergency grants for shelter, rent, utilities and supplies, and the delivery of medical supplies and support services to 120 senior citizens. Then, following the police-involved murder of George Floyd and the ensuing unrest, Johnson went downtown to help the businesspeople who had their storefronts damaged, and eventually he raised more than $2 million to help families in need.

By necessity, the Boys & Girls Clubs added virtual programs for young people, and this past summer about 70% of the club’s programming took place outside where it’s safer. Virtual programming and reaching kids beyond the walls of the organization’s school-based and club-based programs was already in the works, but the pandemic accelerated it.

“We’ll continue to provide services in schools,” Johnson says. “We’ll continue to have tutors in classrooms. We’ll continue to have staff assigned to Madison College, Edgewood College, and UW–Madison, and we’ll continue to have staff in our clubs, but we’re also building out a $250,000 virtual center in Sun Prairie. We’ll be running virtual programming out there, have cameras set up to continue to educate and provide programming for kids virtually. So, it’s going to continue to be part of our long-term plan.”

Johnson’s reaction to the racial tragedies of 2020 paid dividends in 2021 and will continue to positively affect the community in 2022 and beyond. After Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd were murdered — Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, Arbery by three white men while jogging in Brunswick, Georgia — Johnson stepped up and asked police chiefs in southern Wisconsin to issue statements condemning the murders because he wanted Black children in the community to know that local police departments did not condone what happened in either tragedy. To their credit, they all stepped up. A virtual town hall meeting, watched by more than 20,000 people, was set up so that people could express their concern, and the club used its platform to raise $20,000 to help Arbery’s sister complete graduate school.


“I’m honored and quite surprised that I was selected, especially as a nonprofit leader. I’m thankful that I was nominated, that there was a group of my peers that selected me, and it means a lot.” — Michael Johnson, Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County

Victory parade
For Johnson and the Boys & Girls Clubs, 2021 has been a year of triumphs — meaningful triumphs.

Victory No. 1: A report by the Madison Metropolitan School District showed that 100% of the children in the Boys & Girls Clubs’ college preparatory program have graduated from high school and are going on to college.

Victory No. 2: At the urging of Johnson and others, the State Capitol and Executive Residence Board has approved the addition of a statue of the late civil rights icon Vel Phillips, Wisconsin’s first woman and first African American elected to statewide office, at the state Capitol. The idea was planted during protests that followed George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police, some of which turned violent and led to the targeting of businesses in Madison. “One of those nights, I walked out there all night after some young people had criticized me for dispatching 3,000 volunteers downtown to clean up,” Johnson recalls. “There were some young people who were not happy that I did that, so I went out there and I met with them at about 4 o’clock in the morning. They shared with me that there was no Black representation at the state Capitol.”

Johnson contacted Gov. Evers and wrote a letter to the senior executive residency board, beginning the process of advocating for a Vel Philips statue and raising almost $300,000 to make it happen. “Now we’ll have the statue built and it will be gifted to the state,” Johnson says. “That would not have happened if the activists did not bring that to my attention.”

Victory No. 3: Johnson helped raise enough money to purchase a home for a family of four, their first home, with the goal of fully furnishing the home by Christmas. The lucky family, which is a closely guarded secret, soon will learn of this very special Christmas gift, and donations for the furnishings can be made by visiting the Boys & Girls Clubs’ website, bgcdc.org/donate, or contacting Johnson at mjohnson@bgcdc.org.

Victory No. 4: Johnson also led the charge in raising $15 million to build a workforce center that teaches kids how to become tradesmen and women (plumbers, carpenters, and electricians). Construction work on the McKenzie Regional Workforce Center, to be in the former home of Thermo Fisher Scientific in Fitchburg, begins in January and the Center is scheduled to open in fall 2022.

The development of the Center has received “unbelievable support,” Johnson says. “Over 2,400 people have contributed toward the workforce center, which I’m proud of. We’ve put together an amazing regional workforce board. We’re partnering with the Madison Area Builders Association, and BIG STEP and some of the other training groups are going to help us deliver on this critical work. This will be the largest workforce initiative of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America — right here in Madison, Wisconsin.”

Executive of the Year judges had high praise for Johnson’s ability to pivot his work model to serve people in need and face new challenges as they emerge. States one judge: “The Madison community is fortunate to have Michael Johnson. Michael is a born leader and seems to run to tough problems, whether it be civil unrest or tackling the many challenges facing our youth.

“Michael has a pragmatic and inspirational approach to solving problems and providing leadership. He is a blessing to our area youth and to the entire Madison community.”

Click here to sign up for the free IB Ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.