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Speaker Profile: Michael Johnson

May 25, 2020

Speaker profile: Michael Johnson
President and CEO, Boys & Girls Club of Dane County (Madison, Wis.)

Michael Johnson will be speaking at the opening session of the Wipfli National Training Conference Online.

What were your early years like?
I grew up in the projects. My neighborhood was infested with drugs, gangs, prostitution. … It was one of the toughest housing projects in the U.S. I had a rough childhood, but education and the support of volunteers and nonprofits paved a way out for me. Volunteers and nonprofits gave me hope.

Why did you choose a career in the nonprofit industry?
I wanted to use my life experiences to pay it forward. By working in nonprofit, I can create a different path for vulnerable families. There is a lot of need; there are a lot of families who live in situations like mine growing up. They need people who can raise resources and build quality programs to give them hope and a path forward.

How did you prepare for your career?
Even though I always wanted to work in nonprofit, I studied business in college. I got my bachelor’s degree in business and an MBA so I would have the business acumen to manage finances and human capital. Nonprofit leaders can fail if they don’t have the right skills to run the business side of the organization. 

What path has your career taken?
My first job was volunteering at a Boys & Girls Club. After volunteering, I was hired by the Boys & Girls Club in Chicago to be an area director, managing school-based sites and public housing developments.

From there, I became head of facility operations for the school district of Philadelphia; I was vice president at the YMCA in St. Louis; and I led the Lutheran Child and Family Services organization in Indiana and Northern Kentucky. I served as deputy commissioner Parks & Recreation in Philadelphia before I returned to the Boys and Girls Club. I’ve been president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County in Madison, Wis. for 10 years.

How has the industry changed since you started?
Today there’s more competition among funders, especially from grassroots and community organizations seeking to do the work that traditional nonprofits have done. The workforce is tight, especially for nonprofits. And with everything that transpires in the world today, it’s harder to keep kids safe.

What’s your greatest accomplishment?
Over the past 10 years, the Boys & Girls Club has raised about $60 million for kids in the Dane County community. I’m also proud that we’ve grown the Boys & Girls Club workforce from a team of 18 to 175, and we’ve grown the operating budget by about 400%. Today the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County is one of the largest clubs in the country.

It’s fulfilling to see the impact of that work. We’ve helped more than a thousand kids go to college, and those kids are starting to graduate with degrees. It’s very rewarding to see people who didn’t imagine graduating from high school go on to finish college.

What contributed to your success?
Early on, I learned from a supervisor to always stay on top of budget forecasting and to hire the best people. If you surround yourself with smart people (people smarter than you) and create a strong board, you’re more likely to be successful.

What are your biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge has always been fundraising and diversifying funding streams. A lot of donors will give one time or just make an annual gift. Finding sustainable income to fuel the work is an ongoing challenge.

Another challenge is hiring and retaining people. It’s a very competitive market, and it can be challenging to pay competitive wages and retain people in our sector.

Practicing self-care is also difficult. In this industry, people are always giving back. You have to find balance so you can serve others and take care of yourself.

Outside of work, when and where are you happiest?
Walking with my wife and kids – that’s when I’m the happiest

What’s the best part of your job?
I get to be around kids. I get to connect volunteers with meaningful work. And I get to work with a variety of different groups across the county to build programming and opportunities for kids and families.

What’s the best career advice you can offer?
Network. My first job was volunteering at the Boys & Girls Club. It’s not about “who you know;” it’s about people getting to know you and your work. 

How do you stay motivated?
The page always turns. I try to remember that, no matter the situation, the page always turns.


Register today to hear Michael Johnson speak at the National Training Conference Online.

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