Woman helping women
At the WWHF, Tommi Thompson champions education before diagnosis.
From the pages of In Business magazine.
Breast cancer has been a scourge on the women in the Tommy Thompson family. Thompson, Wisconsin’s governor from 1987 to 2001, later served in President George W. Bush’s cabinet as secretary of Health and Human Services. Daughter Tommi, a 46-year-old mother of three, is a 13-year breast cancer survivor; her older sister was more recently diagnosed; and their mother Sue Ann, the state’s former first lady, fought a public-private battle with the disease and is a 23-year survivor.
In 1998, Tommi left her job with PriceWaterhouseCoopers in Boston to help her mother launch the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation, a nonprofit focused on educating women on prevention and early detection of any disease, not just breast cancer.
“Within days I knew this was where I belonged,” Tommi states. Three years ago she became executive director.
In a recent interview, Tommi discussed her journey from the family’s hometown of Elroy, Wis. to her commitment to keeping women on a healthy track.
IB: What does WWHF do?
Thompson: We focus on prevention, health education, and early detection for women. You don’t want a health care system that focuses just on treating illnesses. Many nonprofits focus on post-diagnosis but we hope to prevent people from getting sick, and if they receive an early diagnosis we connect them to resources that can help.
We also provide grants to other nonprofits in the state with like-minded missions, and we fund women researchers to help them get into leadership roles in academic medicine because by doing so they’re helping with the national agenda on research. If there are women researchers at the table they’ll more likely focus on women’s health issues.
IB: Why women?
Thompson: It goes beyond one body part. Women are the heart of the health care system within the family. Whether it’s cardiovascular disease, mental health, domestic violence, osteoporosis, female cancers, prenatal education, or drinking or smoking cessation, especially during pregnancy, their issues can affect the whole family.
IB: What’s your biggest challenge?
Thompson: Getting the word out that our focus goes beyond breast cancer and fundraising, which gets tougher every year. There are so many great nonprofits out there, but funders always like to fund the new program rather than something that’s already working, and we have a lot of programs that work.
IB: What’s the answer?
Thompson: I don’t have one. If I had all the money in the world I’d fund an organization that is efficiently run and has a great core team behind it. Funders call it overhead but it’s so much more important than that.
IB: What should the business community know?
Thompson: We’ve had unbelievable support over the years, but groups often don’t want to fund events, they want to fund work. That sometimes add steps to getting the funds we need, almost like writing a grant request for every company wanting to give $1,000 or $5,000. It takes a lot of staff time. I understand from a corporate viewpoint why they do that, but as a small (25 employee) organization fighting for every dollar, it’s time consuming.
IB: Is your mom still involved?
Thompson: Absolutely! Her vision for this organization will always be a guidepost for us. She’ll always be involved. We want her here!
IB: What was it like growing up in the public eye?
Thompson: By the time my dad became governor I was already in high school in Elroy so I never actually lived in the governor’s residence, but it was a great place to visit and bring friends to while in college!
IB: Would you ever consider public office?
Thompson: No! We had a great experience and have great memories, but politics has changed.
IB: You’ve been at WWHF for 19 of the organization’s 20 years. What else has changed?
Thompson: Technology. We’ve had to reach women in different ways because everyone is so busy. We’ve developed texting programs and conduct ‘Women-ars’ allowing us to be more involved and in touch.
IB: What does WWHF’s future look like?
Thompson: I started this with my mother but we grew it together. It is a special place. We get to address and solve problems. There are no boundaries as to what we can do. I’ve been very blessed and I’m excited for the next 20 years!
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