Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque
President and CEO
Former Chair, TFN Board of Directors

While institutions often pride themselves in knowing how to fix problems, Nancy Van Milligen found that measurable outcomes show that institutions like the foster care system consistently fail.

When Van Milligen first became a foster mother in Chicago she had two small children of her own and was pregnant with her third. But she and her husband recognized they had the room and ability to provide a safe home for additional children in their community.

Van Milligen said her experience after years as a foster parent gave her a clear view of a system that was broken for the children who need it to work the most.

“The state takes children from families and becomes the parent — and fails 60 percent of them,” she said. “It continues to be a broken, flawed system across the nation.”

She fostered 14 children before moving to Iowa. She said the most striking lesson she learned was seeing the deep and positive impacts that come when families actually get the access and resources to thrive.

“I’ve learned that families are best served with community support that empowers families to overcome their challenges,” said Van Milligen.

As the leader of a community foundation, Van Milligen has extended that philosophy to support and empower not only the communities she serves, but also to staff members looking to embed the values of equity and inclusion into their work through involvement in the PLACES Fellowship and other TFN programs and initiatives.

Why did you get into philanthropy?

For a while in Iowa I was a political science instructor at the local college. I was appointed to two state commissions and during one of those experiences I was on a panel with the CEO of a community foundation. She was telling me what she did and I was like, “Oh my god, you have my dream job.

We did not have a community foundation in Dubuque, but as luck would have it my neighbor was working with a bank that was trying to start a community foundation and I was like, “I want that job.” In February 2003, I was hired as the President and CEO — and only employee — of the newly formed Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque.

In the past, you’ve supported and encouraged your foundation staff member who was accepted as a PLACES Fellow, Eric Dregne. You’ve also served as a board member for the Funders’ Network, which counts equity and inclusion among its foundational values. How has that impacted your work?

Dubuque, Iowa, is a German, Irish, Protestant, Catholic, white region. But our demographics are changing and often people are not understanding or embracing the change.

It’s a tap dance. How do you bring people along to think differently about differences and embrace it where equity is the model? This is a difficult conversation and not one that everyone buys into.

PLACES helps participants to understand the history of segregation and red-lining. It helped me learn how to talk about institutional racism in a way that isn’t threatening to a corporate leader.

We have donors that have left us and told us they were leaving because we are tackling this work. That’s tough. TFN has been my rock and my courage.

What is one of the biggest challenges you’re facing right now in this work?

I have found that it’s the current political climate, where everything is politically charged.

I had a beautiful story around our work with immigrants in small rural communities. In Cascade, Iowa, there were a lot of people from the same small city in Mexico. They wanted lessons to learn English as a second language and to get their high school diplomas. We funded the classes and got families to bring meals and offer child care so their Mexican neighbors would be able to go to class. Relationships were formed.

But throughout the year, ICE targeted the students and their families as they were coming to class or going home. It became one more way to detain them. Typically, the husband/bread winner was deported, leaving behind a wife and children with no sup- port. From a policy (and common sense!) perspective, it made no sense. We ended the program in mid-November because people were too afraid to come.

Certainly, when we work in a community, we try to “do no harm.” This was heartbreaking.

If you could write a very short letter—“Dear People In Philanthropy…” What would it say?

Dear People in Philanthropy,
Believe in the organizations that are doing good work. When you find good leadership and good outcomes, fund it generously with as few restrictions
as possible.

Let’s learn to be generous and flexible and empower our non- profits to do great work. Don’t get so hung up on evaluations. When the evaluation costs more than the program, what are we accomplishing?

Is there an internal question you’re constantly asking yourself while doing this work? What is it and how do you answer it?

I have two. I believe that in a town the size of Dubuque, which has a population of 60,000 and is a rural region, we need to be a high-performing community that’s working together at all levels.

How can I be a better partner and how can I help others — especially people in power — see the value of partnering?

We have a strong community voice, which is a powerful tool. How do we make sure we use that power in a way that builds community instead of building our organization?

I think it’s charting a path and staying true to our values. Every time we’ve successfully tackled an issue, it was when people came together, shared resources and took off their “who gets the credit” hat.