Women of Industry: Jenni Collins is a fundraising force

Jenni Collins has many admirers, and to a person they consider her fundraising’s “go-to” woman. Her work in a short, six-year span has raised the bar in community fundraising for regional and local institutions that require private dollars to be built and sustained, and for that and more Collins is one of six local women to be honored in IB’s 2016 “Women of Industry” awards program.

Collins, executive director of the Madison Public Library Foundation, is proudest of her role in raising more than $20 million in private donations for the Madison Children’s Museum, and Madison Public Library’s Central branch, which was badly in need of renovation, plus the Meadowridge and Pinney library locations. She has not only provided an example in fundraising excellence, she’s teaching this art to others.

What’s remarkable to her admirers is that prior to 2007, she had never lived in the Madison area, nor did she have connections here. Even more remarkable is that Collins led successful capital campaigns for the Children’s Museum and the Central Library in the wake of the Great Recession, when even wealthy donors were disinclined to open their wallets. She is described as a savvy networker and relationship builder with a knack for identifying and engaging existing and potential philanthropists, and she needed every bit of her savvy to exceed the fundraising goal of these campaigns, which allows for the creation of endowment funds to sustain the new buildings.

Her work with Madison Public Library and the Children’s Museum has transformed not only the physical landscape of downtown Madison, but also the reputation and capacity of both of these regional assets. “They both were really important projects to me for different reasons, but I just feel my time contributing to both has really made an impact on folks who visit Madison and folks who live here and come enjoy those two locations on a regular basis,” she says. “Just having been part of that is something I’m very proud of.”

Rooted in the Midwest

Collins chalks some of that up to her Midwestern roots. She grew up in suburban Chicago, lived in New York City and served as senior vice president of development for the New York Hall of Science, and then moved back. Part of her recent fundraising prowess also has to do with what she called Madison’s open environment, which has been instrumental in her networking. There is ample opportunity to meet people, get to know people, and find a friend of a friend — so much so that every time she shops for groceries or goes to the hardware store, she runs into somebody she knows.

“People here are very accessible and open to meeting other people, and if you’re willing to put in a little bit of time networking, go to an event, and find those people, you’re bound to make connections that will be successful for your organization.”

Tripp Widder, an attorney and partner with Mohs, MacDonald, Widder, Paradise & Van Note, recalls that when the executive director’s position of the Madison Public Library Foundation became available in 2010, Collins applied and the foundation hired her in heartbeat and never regretted it.

“Her success with the Children’s Museum gave her a working knowledge of the Madison philanthropic community, and we were just beginning the rather daunting task of raising $9 million in private funds for the $30 million Central Library,” he notes. “Since I was campaign chair, I couldn't have been happier. She has turned out to be a true professional in the best sense of that word — organized, focused, good in public situations, able to deal with disappointments, and above all for a fundraiser, able to ask for a check.”

About her only fault, Widder notes, is that she is chronically early to meetings, “which makes the rest of us look bad.”

Outside of her day job, Collins is an active member of the Association for Fundraising Professionals Wisconsin–Greater Madison Chapter, and she advocated for best practices by leading the group as president in 2012. Chapter membership has grown steadily since she began serving in leadership capacities.

“More than 75% of the current AFP Greater Madison Chapter board of directors members will tell you — myself included — that they joined the board because Jenni asked,” says AFP Wisconsin–Greater Madison Chapter President Adam Erdmann. “Fundraisers throughout Dane County and beyond hold her in high regard because of her leadership, tenacity, and high rate of success. Because of this, it feels like an honor when she asks you to participate or be a part of her team.”

Donors describe Collins as “being built for capital campaigns,” and her name comes up every time someone is putting together a fundraising workshop or seminar. She continues to grow programs, build donor relationships, and make a long-lasting impact on the community and budding fundraisers.

Collins relied on her experience in planning and presenting at Fundraising Day New York to initiate Fundraising Day Wisconsin, now in its third year, as a regional conference for fundraising professionals. It attracts nearly 200 attendees from Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota. Needless to say, she also helped solicit sponsorships to cover the costs of putting on Fundraising Day Wisconsin.

She also presents a “Fundamentals in Fundraising” course for less experienced fundraising professionals throughout the state. “Jenni wants everyone who works in development to have access to the most up-to-date resources available,” Erdmann notes. “She’s not just concerned about reaching her own campaign goals, but ensuring that every organization has the wherewithal to reach a state of financial success through fundraising.”

“It would be easy to justify Jenni’s tremendous development and fundraising achievements based solely on her successful building project campaigns for Madison Public Library. The campaigns have connected donors with the values and importance of public libraries,” Library Director Greg Mickells adds. “But she has also unselfishly shared her expertise with many other libraries across the nation, providing guidance for their building project campaigns.”

(Continued)

 

As an advocate of sustainable development through endowments, Collins also developed a benchmark model, now being used by other nonprofits, which stresses measurement of financial goals, retention, and multichannel giving. The benchmark model was developed because the foundation wanted a good snapshot of different fundraising metrics: how much is raised for the annual fund, new donors and retaining new donors, and whether new donors are contributing in a variety of areas or one.

“We’re just trying to measure various aspects of what we set as our goals for engaged and happy donors, and that’s really what makes people stick with us and stay with us for a long time,” Collins explains. “It’s about building those people up but it’s also about things like planned giving. People who tend to give to you for more than 10 years are more likely to be donors who give things in their will.”

Library takeover

Collins might have been recruited to Madison to breath new life into the Children’s Museum and the Central Library, but her work has advanced other projects, as well. In 2013, she led the charge to keep the Wisconsin Book Festival alive and in Madison, working with Mickells to develop a plan to fund the event through a combination of city funds and more than $120,000 per year in private funds that she single-handedly raises.

Since the library’s takeover, the festival has only grown stronger and now draws tens of thousands of people to Madison both on festival weekend in October and to year-round author events. People have written on festival comments cards that the recent Book Festivals and the library’s richer lineup of programs and events played a role in their decision to move to Madison.

Organizations Collins has raised money for and managed have received national recognition. This summer, Madison Public Library earned the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ prestigious National Medal for Museum and Library Service, an honor reserved for only 10 libraries per year in the United States. Add to that the Outstanding Fundraising Professional 2010, AFP Wisconsin–Greater Madison Chapter, and it’s clear her work has not gone unnoticed.

Collins regularly wins major grants from national organizations, such as the National Endowment for the Arts, which fund special arts events and programs at all nine Madison libraries. The grants that Madison Public Library Foundation awards each year often cover library leaders’ and staff members’ trips to national conferences, where they present on what’s happening in Madison’s libraries and attend sessions that help them return home with fresh ideas.

She deflects credit for the Women of Industry honor. “To me, this honor means recognition for the work of the nonprofits I’ve served and what they’ve been able to accomplish here in Madison,” she says. “I’m incredibly proud to work for the Children’s Museum and here at the library, where we have been able to add some new buildings downtown and other parts of the city, too. We really kind of changed the look and feel Madison.”

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.