5 Questions With: Tom Linfield

April 23, 2020

Tom Linfield

Vice President of Community Impact,
Madison Community Foundation,
Madison, Wisconsin
Length in field: 30 yrs.
Length in CF field: 14 yrs.

In a time before the new normal, a time before everyone shrunk to 300 pixels, we sat down with Tom Linfield for the inaugural launch of a new series for our quarterly newsletter: “5 Questions With a Program Manager”.


What trends excite you/alarm you in your field?

I’m excited about collaboration, both at the funding level (we’re increasing our co-funding with other foundations) and the agency level (some of our best projects have been multi-agency coalitions tackling community issues together).  I’m alarmed by the proliferation of non-profits – we now have 3,000 non-profits in our county.  That’s a huge amount of energy and passion, but also a lot of duplication and scattered impact.

What recent grant are you most proud of and why?

One that stands out is an environmental grant project called “Phoenix From the Ashes.”   It was conceived of as a way to help minimize the sense of loss brought about by the devastation of the city’s ash trees by the Emerald Ash Borer) and to create beauty and benefit out of loss. Created as a partnership between the Madison Parks Department, Madison Arts Commission and Wisconsin Urban Wood, and supported by a $75,000 grant from Madison Community Foundation, the Phoenix project was an innovative partnership between multiple agencies, nonprofit organizations and businesses in Dane County.  With over 8,000 trees felled in the city, we were able to help reclaim wood and give it to various agencies for their capital campaigns, have furniture made for other agencies, provide paid internships for wood reclamation and art curation, and fund ten artists to mount an exhibition with work made from the reclaimed ash. The project was recently recognized with an award from the Wisconsin Urban Forestry Council.

What’s a grant project that went awry and what did you learn?

We worked with a coalition of six agencies on an outdoor classroom project, funded with $300,000 over three years (so, a large grant for us)..  Great planning, great organizations, working with five new elementary schools each year over three years. The good news – 15 new outdoor classrooms started, each with 50% of school staff using the outdoor space in their curriculum. A curriculum designer embedded with the school district created standards-based lesson plans. The classrooms included teaching space, community gardens, and some even built performance spaces.  The bad news, over the three years the leader of every single partner agency left. One by one, they kept retiring or finding other jobs. So, a lot of onboarding and it made it difficult to have the group go out and fundraise to continue the program on their own.  Also, the coalition decided everything through group-think, so no single agency was really in charge. This led to accountability issues, lack of marketing, and lack of development. We learned that with partner agencies we needed to make sure that the whole agency, not just their leader, had to have buy-in. Also, with future coalition projects, we will ensure that a “back-bone agency” is included in collective impact projects.

What are you reading that you’d recommend? (Blogs, articles, books, etc)

I don’t end up reading much in the philanthropic realm, apart from Chronicle of Philanthropy articles and the occasional piece that someone emails me. I read the newspaper every day, the Sunday New York Times, the New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly.  For a while I was reading the Purple Cow blog by Seth Godin.  As part of our DEI work, our staff is reading 35 Dumb Things Well-Intended People Say, by Maura Cullen.  A simple but powerful book to read as a group.  At home I just read Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, a funny and fascinating work of nonfiction by Mary Roach.  Couldn’t put it down.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I am a practicing fine artist, doing drawing, sculpture and mosaic work. I exhibit regularly in the Madison area.  I also play guitar, read and crossword puzzle voraciously, listen to a lot of music, and bake.  Currently binge-watching Mrs. Fletcher, Watchmen and Catastrophe.