Her job is to help you be generous


Jennifer Clearwater of Port Washington balances her professional fundraising job at Discovery World in Milwaukee with volunteering to help raise money with the Port Washington-Saukville School District Foundation and Riveredge Nature Center. Her license plate speaks of her job and her philosophy. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
MITCH MAERSCH
Ozaukee Press staff

Jennifer Clearwater’s job is asking people for money.

She’s good at it. 

The Port Washington resident has parlayed her ability to convince people to write checks for good causes into a successful fundraising career that has taken her to a position as director of philanthropy at Milwaukee’s Discovery World.

Clearwater said the key to garnering financial support for nonprofit organizations is giving potential donors the opportunities they want to support worthy causes.

“Effective fundraising is really about the donor. The have a purpose for their life with the resources they have.”

It’s a misconception, she said, that people donate for fame and glory. They do it to make a difference.

“When somebody makes a donation, they get something out of it,” she said. “People who give get to have an influence. They get to build things. They get to change lives.”

Clearwater didn’t foresee a career in fundraising when she attended Concordia University Wisconsin. Through an internship with the Child Abuse Prevention Fund, she learned much from Barb Fischer, who is now the director of Advocates of Ozaukee.

“One of the lessons was that everybody puts their pants on one leg at a time. Some may just have more expensive pants,” she said.

At the age of 25, she was hired as director of Polish Fest, chosen from among a number of other candidates, she said, because she had done her research and was knowledgeable about the ethnic festival.

In three years, Clearwater turned Polish Fest from carrying a deficit into a profit while learning by making “a ton of mistakes.”

Clearwater had “phenomenal mentors” as well, including then-Summerfest executive director Bo Black, who connected her with donors.

Clearwater made the Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 list in 2000, and convinced a consulting firm to hire her, splitting time between marketing the company and working for clients. She said she would do any job but just asked that she got to tag along to meetings to make connections.

Three years later, Clearwater went back into the nonprofit world at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Milwaukee, but left after six months since the atmosphere wasn’t a good fit.

She then spent six and a half years at UW-Milwaukee, fundraising for three different schools and managing planned giving marketing.

That’s where she learned fundraising metrics.

“Fundraising is more of a marathon than a sprint. You have to manage that over the long term,” she said. “My style is the continuum of the relationship and support,” she said.

“Spread the generosity love,” she said.

After UWM, Clearwater became an executive at the Feith Family Ozaukee YMCA in Saukville. She stayed throughout the Metropolitan Milwaukee YMCA’s bankruptcy and merger because she believed in the organization, especially since her community supported the Y in Saukville.

She had made contacts and put a plan B into place the instant she was let go during the merger in 2014. Within a month, Discovery World hired her part time to run its fundraising campaign after longtime development director Steve Atwell unexpectedly died.

She was later named director of philanthropy and put in charge of a multi-million dollar capital campaign that will expand and remodel the center.

“I love that place,” she said. “I’ve been taking my daughter (now 14) there since she was 2.”

The following year, Riveredge Nature Center asked her to join its board of directors and chair its philanthropic committee. Clearwater was honored since she loved visiting since she was a child.

“I’ve licked a tree during sap season. I’ve had a pickle with pancakes,” she said. “It’s just a magical place. It’s a place where the world just quiets down a little bit and you can breathe.”

Clearwater is thrilled that the center is developing a nature-based charter school.

“That’s a game-changer nationally. Maybe they create a model that gets replicated,” she said. “Hopefully, in my lifetime we prove that everybody should have nature-based education.”

Clearwater also worked to help the Port-Saukville School District’s referendum pass, and then became president of the PWSSD Foundation Inc., a recently formed nonprofit organization that raises money to benfit district projects. It’s currently fundraising for Port High outdoor athletic facility upgrades, but has loftier goals.

“Maybe 100 years from now our school district doesn’t have to go out for referendum because it has an endowment,” she said. “It’s exciting to see where that can go.”

The causes Clearwater has worked to support have been varied, but they have one common theme.

“My core drive is that childhood is protected. It’s a short part of life. I want to protect ability of our children to do things as safely as often as possible,” she said.

Fundraising is critical for anyone leading a big or small nonprofit organization, she said, and everyone can get past the stigma of asking people for money. Most everyone already has, whether it’s requesting cash from their parents or applying for a mortgage.

“Everybody has asked somebody for money,” she said.

Clearwater remembers her generous grandmother’s advice in building relationships.

“‘If somebody wants to buy you lunch, you say thank you. It makes them feel good,’” she told her. “‘You just have to know how to say thank you properly.’”

Clearwater balances her work and volunteering with a husband, children ages 14 and 9, a dog, two cats and a goldfish. She also runs a sangria business.

She said she’s OK with not having much downtime.

“I don’t feel overwhelmed,” she said. “I think I recharge quickly.”

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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