When Helen Daniels Bader died at age 62 in November 1989, her passing was marked in a modest eight-paragraph Milwaukee Journal obituary that barely touched the surface of an extraordinary life.
Nor did the article provide any hint on what was to transpire over the following decades, with Helen’s insistence that her fortune go to charity, leading to the creation of a Milwaukee-based foundation that would grow into a powerhouse called Bader Philanthropies Inc.
The foundation is now marking its 30th anniversary, reflecting on its accomplishments, preparing for the future and focusing on the woman whose wealth and passion made a difference.
“She started all this. She really did,” said Daniel Bader, the foundation’s president and chief executive officer, as he sat in a conference room inside the foundation’s headquarters in the heart of the Harambee neighborhood.
The north side of Milwaukee is a long way from Aberdeen, South Dakota, where Helen Daniels was born and raised.
Milwaukee would become her home.
She graduated from Milwaukee-Downer College, met and married a brilliant chemist named Alfred Bader and worked in the family business, Aldrich Chemical Company.
After she and her husband divorced, she returned to college and earned a master’s degree in social work at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
At the time of her death, she had been assistant director of social services at the Milwaukee Jewish Home, specializing in the care of those with Alzheimer’s disease.
What nobody outside members of her family knew was that she earmarked her fortune to a charitable trust.
It was left to her sons, Daniel and David, to figure out how to disperse the funds.
With an initial $100 million, they created a foundation in her name. The institution would eventually include the philanthropic interests and fortune of her ex-husband and his second wife Isabel and become Bader Philanthropies.
Over the years, Bader Philanthropies has provided more than $426 million in funding focused on areas like aging, the arts, Israel, community building and workforce development. A significant amount — $248 million — has been invested in nearly 1,000 organizations in Milwaukee and southeastern Wisconsin.
Even during the pandemic, Bader Philanthropies has given $2.3 million to 63 local organizations in COVID-19 emergency efforts.
Bader Philanthropies provides the financial seeds that help organizations grow and serve others.
As difference-makers, you could focus on individual Baders. Helen’s selflessness and generosity; Alfred’s business prowess and philanthropy that he carried on until his death in 2018; Isabel’s determination to see her late husband’s legacy carry on; and finally, Daniel’s role of overseeing the organization.
But to Daniel Bader, the difference-maker is the foundation.
“The difference that the foundation has made is it interrupted the philanthropy-wealth paradigm,” he said. “There was the old-world paradigm where it was thoroughly the old-boy network and downtown Milwaukee that decided where the money went.”
It was an era, he said, when decisions were made in corporate boardrooms.
“So what we really try to do is provide equal access to anybody who, whether they came from a very large organization with a very well developed fundraising department — or organization with no fundraising program — (we would) give them the ability to access and ask for grant,” he said. “I think we’ve been able to change things by democratizing them. And I don’t mean democratizing by giving all the money away. I mean, democratizing it by giving access, so that the access is equal to anybody.”
In many ways, the foundation carries out a vision embodied by one of Helen’s favorite sayings: “You be you by being the greatest you that you can be.”
Recently, the foundation released a brief film to honor its founder and commissioned a biography, “An Independent Spirit: The Quiet, Generous Life of Helen Daniels Bader” by Priscilla Pardini.
In the documentary, Joan Prince, retired vice chancellor of global inclusion and engagement at UWM, recalled going with her sister to Aldrich Chemical Company.
There, Prince said, she met Helen Bader who told her: “Whatever you decide to do, make sure it’s something that’s impactful. But what’s more important, make sure it’s something that you love to do because you’ll do it for a long time.”
Bader recalled: “My mother was just always this kind of natural people person.”
After her death, it was left to the Bader brothers to take on the responsibility of honoring their mother’s wishes of making a difference through charity.
Would they give the money in large chunks or smaller ones? And where would they direct their giving?
After some 18 months of research, they decided they wanted to create a national foundation to help small and medium-sized nonprofits.
Daniel Bader would oversee the foundation, taking on the role of philanthropist.
“I didn’t come here with a degree in philanthropy,” he said. “And maybe that’s better.”
His brother David, who lives in Pennsylvania and owns a cookie company, Fat Badger Bakery, is the foundation’s vice president. Isabel Bader is an advisory committee member.
Asked about some of the key initiatives over the years, Daniel Bader pointed to several things.
First and foremost is its physical presence in Harambee, where it moved in 2018 into its state-of-the-art headquarters. Besides convening neighbors and organizations, it has made investments in the community, including the nearby eatery and jazz cafe Sam’s Place, and Shalem Healing, which provides holistic health care.
There’s also the funding of the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare at UWM, which educates students to enter human service professions.
Another major area of work has been in helping those with Alzheimer’s disease. Bader Philanthropies has provided funding for 23 years to the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute, a research and education hub that seeks to improve the care for those suffering from the disease and other forms of dementia.
Bader is also “proud of the small ones,” the hundreds of organizations the foundation funds.
Bader speaks energetically of the work done over the last 30 years. But in many ways, the foundation is just getting started.
At 61, he anticipates being at the helm for a good eight to 10 more years. Succession planning is in the very early stages.
“We envision Bader Philanthropies being around for a long time,” he said.