The philanthropic spirit of the late John J. & Ethel D. Keller has had wide-ranging impact throughout the greater Fox Valley region. The couple began their family’s legacy of giving with a $20 grant to the American Cancer Society in 1991. Fast-forward 25 years, and Riverview Gardens was surprised with a $50,000 grant that pushed the J. J. Keller Foundation over $50 million in giving this week. The milestone was celebrated at a reception in the family’s honor at Riverview Gardens on Thursday, September 22.
“Riverview Gardens is one of the most socially innovative and collaborative agencies we’ve partnered with,” said Robert (Bob) Keller, president of the J. J. Keller Foundation (JJKF) Board. “They work with almost 50 partners to provide job training for people in need. And in the process, they transform people’s lives and our community. We’re proud to be among Riverview’s many supporters.”
Kelly Nutty, Riverview’s Director of Resource Development, said, “This was certainly a surprise because earlier this month we received a very generous grant from the Kellers for operational expenses for our ServiceWorks® program. We are humbled by the J. J. Keller Foundation’s unwavering commitment to helping our community members in need become a part of their own solution. The Kellers set the standard for our ‘each one-teach one’ model, and because of their significant moral and financial support, our ‘72 Acres with a Mission’ thrives.”
Nutty continued, “Our transformative ServiceWorks® job-training program allows the people we serve to create and build on their own successes. Every day at Riverview Gardens, we strive to live up to the J. J. Keller Foundation’s saying that ‘from small acorns…great oaks grow.’ With this most generous recognition and gift, the Kellers continue to stand with all of us as we all grow into a community of kinship and purpose.”
In recognition of the Kellers’ considerable impact on nonprofits in the area, two local Mayors declared Thursday, September 22, “J. J. Keller Foundation Day.” Mayor Tim Hanna of Appleton and Mayor Dean Kaufert of Neenah presented the family with official proclamations saluting the family for the milestones.
The Kellers have distributed grants in a variety of ways since the 1990 establishment of the original Keller Foundation Inc., which was formed in honor of family matriarch Ethel Keller’s 70th birthday. Now known as the J. J. Keller Foundation Inc., that fund has become the major giving arm of the family since the deaths of Ethel in 2004, and Jack, founder of J. J. Keller & Associates, in 2007. The Keller family also holds donor-advised funds at the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region, the Greater Green Bay Community Foundation and the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation.
In the early days of the foundation, an average of $50,000 was distributed annually. Today, $4 million per year is typically granted. Marne Keller-Krikava, secretary of the JJKF Board, said, “We have a great privilege and a responsibility to give back in a meaningful way… to try each day to work with others to solve the seemingly ‘unsolvable’ problems and ultimately to live a life where we do as little harm and as much good as possible. I believe through the J. J. Keller Foundation these values will transcend my grandparents and live on through the generations.”
As the Kellers look toward their next giving milestone, they will continue to focus on organizations and programs that address the causes and consequences of poverty, in addition to special areas of interest such as mental illness. “Our mission is to get at the root causes of these issues and make a difference in the lives of individuals and in our community as a whole,” said Brian Keller, a third-generation member of the Foundation Board.
“Mom and Dad tried to inspire others to give, and we’re carrying that torch for them today,” said James J. (Jim) Keller, vice president and treasurer of the JJKF Board. “Dad always said, ‘From small acorns great oaks grow,’ and that inspired us in both our business and our philanthropy. They were great role models.”
The J. J. Keller Foundation Board includes Bob Keller and his daughter, Marne Keller-Krikava, and Jim Keller and his son, Brian Keller. The Foundation provides support to organizations and programs in the Fox Valley that address the causes and consequences of poverty and mental illness. Mary Harp-Jirschele has worked alongside the family for the past nine years as executive director, helping navigate the Foundation’s processes and procedures to enable the family to focus on their thriving business. On November 1, Heidi Dusek will take over as executive director as Mary retires. Heidi comes to the Foundation from the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region, where she was Community Engagement Manager.
Riverview Gardens was founded in December 2011 and is the collaborative transformation of a 72-acre golf course and country club. Multiple interactive social enterprises have been created to provide unlimited job-training opportunities with sources of revenue, as well as an accessible, community park space. Riverview has five social enterprises that support unlimited, interactive job training opportunities: a USDA certified-organic urban farm and massive hydroponics area, community center event space, a bakery and a downtown collaborative/retail building. More than 50 collaborations with other nonprofit organizations are in place, in addition to partnerships with local government and businesses.