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Philanthropist Mary Burke believes everybody deserves a chance to be successful
Giving -- and getting results
Burke is fully engaged in the organizations she supports. This year she helped prepare Thanksgiving dinners at the Boys and Girls Club. For more photos, click gallery, above.
Credit:Eric Tadsen

The phone call came late one afternoon last March. Rachel Krinsky - then the executive director for the Road Home, a nonprofit agency serving homeless families in Dane County - was preparing to meet with the board of directors, which had recently voted to end a three-year campaign to raise money to build apartments for homeless families.

Having fallen $900,000 short of its fundraising goal, the board decided to build seven apartment units instead of the 15 it had sought, meaning eight families would remain on the street. "We had been fundraising for a long time and were out of ideas," Krinsky recalls. "Everyone was tapped out."

On the phone was Mary Burke, a wealthy 52-year-old philanthropist and former business executive, calling with unexpected news: She wanted to give the $450,000 needed to build those eight additional units. (The remaining $450,000 was an endowment goal.)

Krinsky's jaw dropped.

"I was just stunned," she says. "Mary wasn't even in our database."

Burke, a former Trek Bicycle vice president and state Commerce secretary, had read about a homeless family that slept in a car, and she couldn't shake the thought of families having nowhere to go. While looking for a way to help, she caught wind of the Road Home's aborted campaign and stepped up to help.

To the Road Home, it was nothing short of a miracle. But to Burke, a steadfast advocate of social and economic justice, it was a down payment on Madison's brighter future.

For nearly 15 years Burke's hands-on approach to philanthropy has made a difference in countless lives. Since retiring from a lucrative business career in 2004 to volunteer full-time - with a brief return to paid employment when Gov. Jim Doyle tapped her as Commerce secretary in 2005 - she has emerged as an understated force whose philanthropic work aims to move the needle on two of Madison's most intractable problems: poverty and minority student achievement.

A longtime supporter of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, Burke has led the club's expansion from a barebones community organization to one that drives significant change. Under her leadership, a unique partnership between the club and the Madison school district was forged to build on a nationally acclaimed college prep program that has since spread from East High School to the city's three other high schools.

As Commerce secretary, Burke was often featured in state business news, but she shies away from recognition for her personal generosity. She initially declined to be profiled in Isthmus.

But as of late Mary Burke has become something of a newsmaker. She made a splash in October after pledging $2.5 million over five years to Madison Prep, the controversial charter school proposal that was hotly debated for nearly two years. And earlier this month she entered the race for a school board seat being vacated in April. It's her inaugural plunge into electoral politics.

Already some have suggested her run is a response to the school board's rejection of Madison Prep, but both Burke and those who know her best say running for school board is a natural extension of her longstanding commitment to education.

"She doesn't carry an agenda," says Karen Ingwell, who's known Burke personally for 15 years. "Mary is an extremely independent person. She really listens to all points of view, and because of that she's really hard to stereotype."

Engaged philanthropy

"Philanthropist" is a distinguished title, but it doesn't quite capture the scale and scope of Mary Burke's ongoing contributions to Madison, a city she was once ambivalent about calling home.

She sits on five different boards of directors for area nonprofits. She volunteers twice weekly at Frank Allis Elementary. She mentors a sophomore in the AVID/TOPS program, as well as a teenage mother coming out of foster care. And through a program at Porchlight Inc., she has befriended a formerly homeless diabetic man.

"Her belief that every person deserves a chance to be successful - those aren't just words," says Darrell Bazzell, president of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County and vice chancellor for administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "The opportunity is always there to improve the human condition. She lives that every day."

Burke remains actively involved in the much-applauded AVID/TOPS program, a college prep curriculum for students in the "academic middle" who would be the first in their families to graduate college. As the program enters its fourth year, early indications are that it's working, but, she says, "We won't know for sure until kids start earning their college degrees."

Burke continues to play a vital role with the Boys and Girls Club, both as a volunteer, donor and organizer of its annual bike ride, which has raised $1.2 million for the club over nine years. And she recently pledged $300,000 toward South Madison Promise Zone, a citywide initiative aimed at better coordinating the fight against poverty.

She described her approach to giving in a 2010 talk for UW-Madison's "Entrepreneurs in Society" lecture series. Entitled "Promoting Community Change Through Engaged Philanthropy," her talk looked at how the proliferation of nonprofits - 120 on average are created each day across the country - has intensified competition for limited resources. Because of this, she says, nonprofits are sometimes reluctant to form partnerships with potential rivals and might be less than forthcoming with donors about unmet goals.

This fragmentation, Burke says, leaves everyone ill equipped to tackle complex problems, something she is trying to change. "It's not just about writing checks," she says. "It's bringing knowledge and expertise and connections. To me it's about being a partner with the agency."

Her big financial gifts are often structured with an eye toward results. Her pledge to Madison Prep was made to ease the financial burden on the district, but she also stipulated that Madison Prep had to raise matching funds of $500,000 a year.

Burke's gift to the Road Home was contingent on the agency's ability to leverage it to raise the money for its endowment. "We raised another $400,000 we couldn't find anywhere else because people were so inspired by her gift," says Krinsky.

Burke chipped in $1 million in addition to procuring a $1.6 million grant from her father's foundation to fund AVID/TOPS as long as certain benchmarks were met along the way. Recently, an assessment by a UW-Madison research team showed students in AVID/TOPS were doing significantly better than those in a control group.

"Mary's about accountability. She's not looking to give, she's looking to invest," says Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club. "But with that investment you better know that she's going to hold you accountable, she's going to make sure you deliver results."

On the move

Given her substantial contributions to the city and its neediest residents, it's worth considering that Burke moved here in the late 1990s with little intention of sticking around, let alone giving so much.

"Mary is always doing something different," says her brother John Burke, president of Trek Bicycle. "She gets on something and follows it all the way through, and then she switches gears."

In 30 years she has lived in 17 cities and seven countries, relocations often necessitated by her career.

Though born in Madison, Mary and her four siblings were raised in Hartland (near Milwaukee), where their father, Richard Burke, co-owned an appliance distribution company. At age 12, she knew she wanted to follow him into the business world.

Her brother recalls Mary as an intensely driven kid with a strong competitive streak. "Mary doesn't like to lose," he says. "[She] was definitely the hardest working; she got the best grades; she was a great athlete and a very good basketball player. There was one game where I bet she scored over 40 points."

Surprisingly, she isn't much of a bicyclist.

Burke earned a degree in finance from Georgetown University and later a master's in business administration from Harvard.

After working as a consultant in New York and Washington, D.C., she returned to Wisconsin in the late-1980s to work for Trek Bicycle, the company her father co-founded in 1976, but was unhappy living in Milwaukee.

"I'd been living in big cities for a while," she says. "It was like, 'Wow, what am I doing here?'"

Soon Burke was flying every weekend to New York, where she co-founded a business called Manhattan Intelligence, an insider's guide to the Big Apple. Its failure, she says, was "a huge blow to my ego."

She went on to open Trek operations in seven European countries and, following a snowboard sabbatical in Argentina and Colorado, was back in Wisconsin by the late 1990s, this time living in Madison. However, the city's deficit of single professionals left lots to be desired in terms of a social life.

"When I told people I didn't feel connected they were like, 'You don't feel connected in this town?'" she says. "But I didn't mean like that connected; I meant good, deep relationships."

Unacquainted with any single men, her brother placed a personals ad in Isthmus on her behalf. Each day he and his assistant sorted through and rated the responses until whittling the list of potential suitors from more than 70 down to five. "I don't think she liked that too much," he laughs.

One morning he handed her a list of men to call. "I'm not calling anyone," she scoffed.

Instead, she moved to Seattle but kept her job at Trek, flying to and from Wisconsin for work. When her Madison house didn't sell she returned with the intention of moving to Seattle permanently once it did. Her ill-defined plans made her brother antsy.

"[He] said, 'You're in an important position and I can't just not know.'"

Burke committed to Trek for one more year but, approaching her 40s, began to question whether she wanted to move again. "At the end of that year I just decided that no place is perfect and asked myself, 'Do I really want to start all over?'"

A passion discovered

Mary's father was described as a quiet philanthropist who believed that education could remedy many social ills. A working-class kid from Chicago, he never lost sight of the doors education opened for him.

"He didn't have a lot, and he was lucky enough to get into Marquette," says John Burke. "He understood where he was in life was because of the education he received. He [also] understood the only way you can get people out of those situations is through education."

While Mary inherited her father's appetite for business, her passion for education emerged later in life.

Upon moving back to Madison in the late 1990s, she began mentoring a pair of boys from the south side after John began mentoring the boys' older brother. One day, rather than meet them at her east-side home, she asked staff at the Boys and Girls Club on Taft Street if they could work on homework there instead.

The club, less than a year old, soon asked her to serve on its board of directors. "That's where it started," she says.

Burke's commitment to the club is unflagging. She laid the foundation for its financial solvency, has stepped in periodically as its interim director, and is among its largest donors. In 2004, she resigned from Trek to lead the club's $6.25 million fundraising effort for a state-of-the-art facility near Allied Drive. Additionally, she volunteers. Last month she spent two days helping prepare Thanksgiving dinners for more than 300 Allied-Dunn residents.

"She gives a lot of resources, but she's also intimately involved with the staff, the kids and their parents," says the club's Johnson. "Rarely do you see that from a donor at her particular level. I've never met anyone like her."

Such zeal is characteristic of Burke's undertakings.

"Once she has her mind set on something she's incredibly focused," says friend Ingwell. "She got to the point when she was secretary of Commerce that if I bought cheese or beer that wasn't made in Wisconsin I'd hear about it."

Her 2005 appointment as Commerce secretary was Burke's first and only government job. After stepping down, she was asked in 2008 to oversee a state-sponsored study of the financial troubles plaguing Milwaukee schools, which she did pro bono. Aside from her relatively modest campaign contributions to Democratic candidates, Burke isn't overtly political, preferring to weigh ideas on their merit rather than their politics.

Some critics of Madison Prep cast her pledge to the charter school as part of a broader, nationwide push to undermine public education. Ironically, these same critics often pointed to AVID/TOPS as a better approach to closing the district's racial achievement gap.

"AVID/TOPS is a great program, but we can't point to any areas where it has completely transformed a district and closed those gaps," she said prior to Madison Prep's rejection by the school board. "Between them both we could be a leader in the country in addressing this issue."

Wealth and responsibility

The Burke children grew up affluent, but not rich. Their parents, Richard and Elaine, amassed a considerable fortune later in life when Trek Bicycle took off. The company now employs 1,600 people and last year saw $800 million in global sales.

In 1995, Richard Burke established the Trinity Foundation (now the Burke Foundation), which has funded many educational initiatives in and around Milwaukee.

Despite their privilege, the Burke children were expected not only to work for things they wanted, but to give back to those who were less fortunate.

Long before Trek become a global brand, Richard and Elaine gave their children a limited amount of stock in the company, intended to provide supplemental income later in life.

"They were like, 'You'll have to work, but you'll never be poor," Burke recalls. "It did a lot better than they probably thought. Because my brother has done a great job at managing the company, it has made us wealthy."

The stock also came with the understanding that when their parents passed away - as Richard did following heart surgery in 2008 - their own money would go to charity.

"In lots of families that have wealth it becomes a source of a lot of problems," Burke says. "I admire the way my parents did that."

Following her gift, the Road Home asked Burke to write an essay for its newsletter on why she gives.

"For many years, I spent money on things because I could, not because it brought me more happiness," she wrote. "It has taken me 50 years to understand what my parents knew all along - it is not what we have but what we give that defines us."

Burke described shedding some of her material trappings, like trading in her BMW for a more modest Toyota Prius and donating her jewelry to the Boys and Girls Club, which then raised $50,000 through an auction.

"I still live well but a lot simpler, and I have never been happier."

What Burke didn't mention was that to finance her $450,000 gift to the Road Home, she sold her house and bought a smaller, less expensive one.

"It's hard to grow up and be prepared to get a good education if you're dealing with the more basic issues of being fed and where to sleep at night," she says. "I thought, 'I can take this money and use it to help people who are looking for just a roof over their head.'"

The future is now

Buildings, auditoriums and public spaces often read like a who's who of moneyed Madison. But the only physical monument to Mary Burke's generosity doesn't even bear her name, inside or out.

"Mary just doesn't like fanfare and, to be quite frank, she doesn't like to be recognized. She doesn't want her name on things," says Johnson of the Boys and Girl Club. "You just don't find that in a lot of people."

When the club honored her with its first lifetime achievement award in 2010, Johnson says, "She struggled with it. We had to really convince her to let us give her this award in front of 800 people."

The Boys and Girls Club facility off Allied Drive is a 21,200-square-foot community center where neighborhood children come to socialize, play and, most importantly, learn through an array of specialized programs. It's both a symbol of hope and a solemn reminder of the many problems the community faces.

"Madison is an incredibly giving community, but there's a lot of need out there, and we can do a lot better," says Burke.

After nearly 15 years in Madison - the longest she's ever remained in one place - Burke has finally made it her home. She lives on the east side with her two yellow labs, and has never married or had children.

"It's just the way it worked out," she says, adding she has no interest in marriage. "I've basically lived alone for 35 years and can't imagine anyone wanting to put up with me."

Entering her fourth year of retirement, Burke is as busy as ever. In January, planning for the poverty-fighting Promise Zone initiative will commence, as will planning for the Boys and Girls Club's 10th annual bike ride. Her campaign for school board is already under way.

If something is driving her to scale back her lifestyle and expand her sphere of influence, it's her father's unexpected passing, after which she ruminated about her own mortality.

"There were probably things he wished he had done more of," Burke says. "I think that's probably his greatest influence - seeing that there is no time like the present to do what you can."

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