Melinda Heinritz said that her life’s work is to ensuring that "all girls see themselves as beautiful and possessing the power to have the lives they want.” Heinritz believes that if girls believe this, “they’ll be unstoppable as women.”
As the new executive director at Foundation for Madison's Public Schools, Heinritz said she truly gets to live out her mission by working to ensure that all children in the district have access to the resources that they need to be successful in the classroom and beyond.
Before taking over at FMPS, Heinritz worked as the strategic partnerships director at the Madison Community Foundation. There she managed “A Fund for Women” which, to date, has distributed over $1.1 million to fund initiatives that support women’s economic empowerment. Before that, she served as the executive director of the Wisconsin Historical Foundation.
Why did you decide to go to work at the FMPS?
The simple answer is that (the FMPS) board asked. They pursued me a couple of different times about the job. I look at being in this humbling role of playing a tiny role in trying to make this a thriving community for everyone. At the Madison Community Foundation, the seat I had at the table was about investing in women and girls, the best thing that you can do for a thriving community. I am still in the same conversation, but now my seat at the table is about a thriving public education system as an element of a thriving community.
I just found that I was really ready to return to an executive role. I had worked for 12 years in a public-private partnership, and here was an opportunity to return to a public-private partnership, albeit there are definitely some differences. I am a product of public schools, my husband is a public school product, my son is a 5th grader at Lincoln. I think about the success I’ve had in the primary and secondary education I received, although not here, if I look back at what set me up for success, it was that opportunity to have a successful and free public education.
How do you think your public school education influences your work at FMPS?
I think one of the most important things a community can have is a thriving public education system. I know how well it served me to have, almost exclusively, fantastic teachers in primary and secondary education. I think it’s a great reason to get up and go to work every day. I think, I might do something that helps one of the 27,000 students in our system move one step closer to their dreams. I think my primary and secondary education really helped me to feel like I could succeed at anything. That is what I hope I have a role in, helping all of our students feel that way.
I know FMPS offers a lot of grant funding for teachers to complete independent projects. Do you have a favorite?
I’ve only been here three months, so I am not yet a master of all those details. But, on Nov. 21, the staff and I are taking a day to reflect on 2016’s success. How do we close the year successfully and start 2017 well? As a part of that, we are going over to Lussier Community Education Center. The radio station sound booth program was an outcome of one of our “Foundation for the Future” grants. (As a student) if you can work up the confidence to get into a sound booth and be on the radio, think about what that means and what that says to other young people. I am excited to learn more about that project. The young man that runs that station is the only person of color that runs a radio station in this county, and he is an alum of our public school system. I am looking forward to getting to know him. He is a dynamic and inspiring speaker.
FMPS gives so much to the public schools and the community in Madison. What do you get out of this role? What has the community given to you?
It is a chance to continue to work with a really committed set of women and men who have ideas about how to work towards a better community for everyone. My life is a lot richer for that diversity. One of the things I love about the public school system, especially with my son at Midvale-Lincoln, is that the student body looks very different. That is the community in which he will work and build his life and his family. I hope, during my time in this role, that I have the opportunity to invite anyone that wants to support public education and give them a way to do that, so it feels real and relevant.
What do you feel is one of MMSD’s biggest challenges? How does FMPS play into solving it?
One of the great opportunities we have is to work with the district to create a robust marketing platform. Every day we have amazing children doing amazing things. We have amazing teachers and schools. In turning the schools inside out and inviting the community into them more regularly and providing a consistent, asset-positive picture of our public school system serving most of our kids quite well, and that we are really invested in ensuring that the system serves all kids well.
I go (to the schools) because I am a parent, but I think it is different to go into the classroom and just see what happens, or participate in a “Principal Experience” program. Only 45 minutes had passed (as I shadowed a principal) and I was exhausted. A principal has this very complex CEO role. Inviting people in so they can really appreciate the difficulty of the jobs that people in the district have, and yet they are there because of their love, passion, and commitment.
How can people get to know more about what FMPS is doing and get involved?
I think the opportunity for better marketing applies to us as well. For a 16-year-old organization, we have quite a track record. At our annual “Circle of Friends” event, we’ve had as many as 700 or 800 people come out to it. Aside from the website and the “Principal Experience,” we have an “Adopt a School” program. We do a good job for a young, small organization, but it’s our job and our responsibility to get more of the word out to people about the programs we offer so they know that they exist.
What is your north star or guiding light in this work? What type of legacy do you want to leave after your time at FMPS?
I think that urgency is an important part of fundraising, so how do you create that urgency? Partly, our district needs more resources right now, so inherently there is urgency around that. The first finish line for FMPS is 2021, our 20th birthday. The board is working on a strategic planning process to build out where are we right now, and what does success look like when we turn 20? We seek success in five top-line areas. One is culture. How do we build a culture of public support for education throughout the community? Also, fundraising, marketing, advocacy and community partnerships. How can we work with some of the signature non-profit partners who are already working with the district and form a collaborative fundraising effort? I even think about where will FMPS be when I retire? That's more of a 15-year timeline. What could that look like? I also think about 30 years from now, what’s important as my successors look back at me? In terms of fundraising, an obvious part of that is planned giving, seeing some of these estate gifts come to fruition. Its also beginning some practices around building an operating endowment, so it does more of the lifting, and I don’t have to put so much energy into covering the budget so I can concentrate more of the district and the students and teachers.
How do we, with intention, interact with this community? Think about the student body right now. Thirty years from now, they will be the donating public. What are we doing right now to build those relationships? How do the staff and the board encourage little kids to think about giving back? To encourage kids and anyone who wants to explore a non-profit career to come in.
Down the road, 30 years, different kids who have gone into the nonprofit sector will think about the FMPS and how we helped them to explore a career path they may not have thought of. It’s also just about an engaged, giving public. If we are not intentional about making ourselves relevant to kids right now and their parents, then, when they have the money, they will ask, "where were you 30 years ago?" To me, it’s really important that this organization builds ourselves around what this community looks likes and what the student body looks like. Practically speaking, it’s going to pay off down the road, but it is also just the right thing to do.