Foundation mourns passing of its first leader, David M.G. Huntington

The Greater Milwaukee Foundation was among the first community foundations established in the world and had been operating for more than half a century, but it wasn’t until the arrival in 1970 of David M.G. Huntington that it came into its own.

He was the Foundation’s first executive director and first full-time employee. During Huntington’s 22-year tenure, the Foundation grew from 29 funds and $4 million in assets to 267 funds and $114 million, eventually becoming one of the 20 largest out of more than 400 community foundations in the country. Grants awarded increased from about $367,000 to more than $7.6 million during that time. 

“The Foundation was a big part of his life,” said Sam Huntington, his son, who was 4 years old when his father started. “Everything he did before then led up to that role. Leading the Foundation was a great fit for him.”

David Mack Goode Huntington, a longtime resident of Shorewood, died Aug. 16 at the age of 92. 

Huntington was born in Millsboro, Delaware in 1926 and raised in New York and Massachusetts. He entered Harvard University on a full scholarship in the summer of 1944 at the age of 17. Like many of his generation, he joined the war effort, enlisting in the U.S. Army at age 18. Following time in the Philippines and Korea, he later returned to Harvard to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

After graduation, he worked on Wall Street for three years before returning to Harvard, where he served as administrative officer and graduate school counselor. In 1959, he joined the University of Chicago, first as assistant director of development and later director of development for its biological services division.

His faith and family upbringing made philanthropy a natural part of the family’s credo. While unfamiliar with the Milwaukee nonprofit scene, his positions in Chicago gave the New Englander familiarity with the foundation sector.

“It is a little tricky coming into a community from the outside and saying, ‘I want to take your money and give it to other people in your community because I can tell you where it can be used best,” Sam said. “His honesty and transparency helped earn a lot of trust when he came to Milwaukee.”

Without a full-time staff to concentrate on cultivating donors or assets, the Foundation had little name recognition and impact. Huntington hit the ground running, reaching out to area bankers and business executives such as Edmund Fitzgerald, chair of Northwestern Mutual, to discuss the Foundation and its merits.

While the Foundation’s executive director, he also spent time as administrator for the Faye McBeath Foundation and the Walter and Olive Stiemke Foundation, two local private foundations. The $8.7 million Stiemke Foundation became a donor advised fund within the Milwaukee Foundation in 1984, helping increase the total assets to more than $40 million.

“He liked building relationships and was really drawn to the ability to find out what the needs were in the community and create a way to meet those needs,” Sam said. 

Sam recalled his father talking often about the Foundation and said he would take the family to visit organizations that the Foundation supported. Huntington showed great pride in the organization’s impact in the community and specifically its growth over the years.

“The numbers really mattered to him – it represented the ability to help more people and help the community,” said Sam. “He really wanted to make a positive impact on as many people as he could.”

As the Foundation’s assets grew, the organization became more than just a grantmaking institution. Huntington was credited with developing its role as a convener and catalyst, marshalling community leaders and resources to address major issues and concerns.  Among the many milestones under his leadership were the creation of the following:

  • Shaw Scientist Program, an awards program that provides unrestricted funding to young scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to support the fields of biochemistry, biological science and cancer research
  • Women’s Fund of Greater Milwaukee, a field of interest fund dedicated to meeting the needs and goals of women and girls in greater Milwaukee
  • Wisconsin AIDS Fund, the only fund in the state directed exclusively at addressing the AIDS epidemic. It supportedprograms directed at the prevention and spread of AIDS, and care and treatment services for those infected in Wisconsin, primarily greater Milwaukee
  • Families and Children in Poverty Initiative, which was funded with a $3 million commitment from the Foundation and focused on supporting families with young children in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood
  • The Neighborhood & Family Initiative, funded with a $1 million Ford Foundation grant and centered on addressing physical, social and economic needs in Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood 

“David really is ‘Mr. Milwaukee Foundation.’ He took the foundation when it was a child, and made it in a full-fledged entity, one of the leaders among community foundations around the country,” said Orren J. Bradley, Foundation Board chair, upon the announcement of Huntington’s retirement in 1992.

Reflections on Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s first leader

“David was a wonderful man whose vision and leadership set the Greater Milwaukee Foundation on its path to the institution it is today. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and I am reminded of David’s tremendous contributions to Foundation each day.”

- Ellen Gilligan, current president and CEO

“What strikes me the most about David's tenure was how much he accomplished with so little. The Foundation only had $4 million in assets, very little visibility in the community and virtually no impact when David became the executive director. David eventually managed to get other banks to join as trustees, created a companion corporation to invest donors' assets with other investment managers and built the assets during his tenure to more than $114 million. But just as important he hired an exceptional staff, engaged in creative and effective grantmaking and started two community focused initiatives. My efforts to build the Foundation were so much easier because of his leadership.”

- Doug Jansson, Foundation president & CEO (1992-2010) 

“David set the stage for ensuring the Foundation was always accessible and responsive to community needs and always completely honest and trustworthy with both donors and nonprofits the Foundation served. David was the perfect person to lead the Foundation in those difficult early years and then to oversee it develop and grow into a tremendous community asset.”

- Doris Heiser, former director of donor services

“David was an insightful leader, making a difference by building the Foundation's assets and investing in Milwaukee's diverse community. Under his leadership, rather than working unilaterally, we initiated collaborations with other private and corporate foundations to fund larger, multi-year projects.”

- Jane Moore, former director of program development and evaluation

“He approached his role with integrity bar none – receptive and gracious in soliciting input and able to balance varying constituencies and perspectives. He was both a mentor and willing learner. He was right for the time. When appropriate, there was a ready smirk behind his thoughtful disposition.”

- Sharon Loxton, Foundation’s first controller

“He was one of the most kind, dedicated individuals and committed to this community. When I started there were only three full-time and two part-time staff and he treated us like family. He always had a vested interest in the Foundation and was proud of its success!”

- Mary Albrecht, former assistant

“David was ideally suited for this position – someone the community of donors and the community at large could rely on for his exceptional intelligence, integrity and concern for Milwaukee. While he had somewhat of a patrician demeanor with his distinguished profile and ever-present bow tie, he was one of the most down to earth and relatable persons I have ever known. While it is one thing to earn the praises of the larger community, which he never sought but richly deserved, it is another honor to earn the respect and love of those you worked with on a day in and day out basis. I always thought of him as a prince of a person and someone whose relationship I will forever value.”

-Jim Marks, former director of grant programs