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Local couple ranked among America’s biggest donors

Posted on Feb 12, 2019, by

When you think of those who make extraordinary donations to help those in need, names like Bill and Melinda Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and other famous philanthropists might come to mind. Ranking among those celebrities is a couple from De Pere, whose estate gift of $103 million to the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region is giving our community another reason to celebrate today:

Rita and David Nelson arranged for an estate gift of $103 million to a donor advised fund at the Community Foundation.

That generous gift arranged by the late David L. Nelson and his wife Rita was ranked the 16th most generous donation in the country and the largest in Wisconsin in 2018.

The 19th annual Philanthropy 50, the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s ranking of America’s biggest donors, features veteran philanthropists along with the Nelsons, who were married for 73 years and died within months of each other in 2017. The list is based primarily on gifts and pledges of cash, land, and stock to nonprofit organizations. The full list of donors is here.

“This is the most generous gift ever for our region and will be a catalyst for not only addressing community needs today, but also for investing in exciting opportunities for future generations,” said Curt Detjen, Community Foundation President and CEO. “The Nelsons, like each of our donors, continue to make a difference in their communities, and we feel it in a special way in this milestone year.”

America’s biggest donors gave a total of more than $7.8 billion last year, down from the $14.7 billion the top 50 donors gave in 2017, according to the list.

The Nelson estate gift, announced in May as more than $100 million, was among the largest in Wisconsin’s history. Another $3 million was contributed after further estate transfers. The bequest was by far the largest gift to the Community Foundation in its 33-year history, surpassing an estate gift of $16 million in 2004 from the late Donald and Violet Himebaugh of Appleton.

The honor comes following a fiscal year in which the Community Foundation awarded a record $28.6 million in grants to 1,251 nonprofit organizations, taking the total grants awarded in its 33-year history to $295 million. The Foundation’s 1,605 charitable funds under management total $470 million in assets and received $132.9 million in contributions, including the breathtaking estate gift by the Nelsons.

David and Rita Nelson with their family

The Nelson gift established the David L. and Rita E. Nelson Family Fund within the Community Foundation, a permanent, donor-advised endowment that awards grants primarily in the Green Bay and Fox Cities areas benefiting the couple’s interests, including parks, recreation and waterways; education; health care; community services and community centers; and historic preservation, including lighthouses, museums and historical societies. Other areas of family interest may be considered, as recommended by the fund’s advisory committee. The Community Foundation supports an advisory committee of people who know the Nelson family to award grants from the fund.

The first grants, totaling $3.5 million, were awarded to eight grant recipients in May 2018. Additional grants will be awarded annually beginning this summer and will be determined by the fund’s advisory committee working closely with the Community Foundation staff. Detjen said the $103 million fund is expected to award more than $4.5 million in grants per year by 2021, based on the Foundation’s endowment formula that up to 4.5 percent of an endowment’s asset balance be distributed as grants each year to assure the fund’s giving capacity and permanence.

Initial grant recipients included:

  • Grassy Island Range Lights, $2.62 million for stabilization of two historical lighthouses near Green Bay, and a municipal boat landing.
  • Little Chute-Kaukauna board walk, $650,000 to raise the local share of a pedestrian/bicycle boardwalk across the Fox River.
  • Grignon Mansion, $50,000 for reconstruction of the summer kitchen and enhanced signage at the Kaukauna historic site.
  • Friends of High Cliff State Park, $50,000 for restoration of the upper park pavilion at the state park in Sherwood, and support for a summer naturalist.
  • Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, $30,000 for an endowed fund for tuition assistance at the Milwaukee all-girls Catholic school.
  • Kaukauna High School, $30,000 for an endowed scholarship.
  • Vincent de Paul Society, $25,000 for support for those in need at the nonprofit in Green Bay
  • Norbert College Parish, $15,000 for construction of a prayer/reflection garden at the old St. Joseph Church on the campus of St. Norbert College in De Pere.

View media coverage of Nelsons’ gift

Who were David and Rita Nelson?



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