By Lisa Watson
As someone who has worked for more than 30 years both as a professional consultant to nonprofits and as an ardent volunteer, Donna Wilkinson believes that an organization’s biggest asset is the volunteer leadership behind it. “I’m pretty passionate about the role of volunteers,” she says. “For instance, if you have an organization that wants to move forward with a capital campaign, that will make the difference in whether something is successful or not. If you don’t have the volunteer leadership behind you, it is really difficult.”
Since moving to St. Louis in 1978 with her husband, the late St. Louis football Cardinals coach Bud Wilkinson, Donna Wilkinson has helped raise millions of dollars for dozens of nonprofits, ranging from Opera Theatre of Saint Louis to the St. Louis Symphony, St. Louis Fire Department Lifesaving Foundation, National Children’s Cancer Society, Radio Arts Foundation and more. A graduate of the political science program at Michigan State University, she served as assistant secretary of state in Michigan, among other positions, before taking up residence here. Though Bud’s coaching appointment was short-lived, the couple stayed in their newfound home. “We loved St. Louis,” she says. “The people were so wonderful to us and welcomed us with open arms.”
Wilkinson remembers her first foray into fundraising fondly. “It was probably in the early ’80s. The first event I ever chaired was for the Masters & Johnson Institute. Virginia Johnson Masters and her husband Bill Masters were friends of ours. I co-chaired the event with the late Leigh Gerdine, who was the president of what was then Webster College (now Webster University). It turned out to be a great experience and a successful one. From there on, I got more involved.”
From her time in the political sphere, Wilkinson knew about organizing, but it wasn’t until the year after her husband passed away in 1994 that nonprofit consulting became a business venture. “I was urged by very good friends, but I wasn’t sure it was what I wanted to do. I had to think about it. But it was one very, very good friend, Bert Walker, who got me together with a group from Lewis and Clark Community College, and they became my first client.” The Illinois college was going through a capital campaign, and Wilkinson provided assistance in their St. Louis-area fundraising. “It was rewarding on a lot of different levels, particularly to have taken what I did as a volunteer and turn it into a business.”
Today, The Wilkinson Group mainly focuses on fundraising initiatives, board development and campaigns for its clients. Philosophically, Wilkinson stresses organizational sustainability, saying, “We look to strengthen an organization’s capacity to grow. That is vital to most organizations. If you’re not moving up—if you’re just marking time, so to speak, and you’re treading water—pretty soon, you’re going to be declining.”
Wilkinson says the work has become “part of who I am,” a statement that is backed up by the extensive list of nonprofits she works with, both on and off the clock. She chairs the Regional Arts Commission, and has served on the board of Opera Theatre since 1983 and the St. Louis Symphony for more than a decade. A former board chair of the Missouri History Museum, she currently is chairing the search committee for the museum’s next president, which hopes to present its short list to the organization’s governing bodies in December. She’s also on the board of the United Way, where this spring, she gathered a crowd of more than 900 at the nonprofit’s first-ever Volunteer Center Honors event to honor some of its partner agencies’ most dedicated volunteers. In a more recent undertaking, she became involved at the Radio Arts Foundation, which launched its classical music station this spring.
But as Wilkinson talks about the causes she’s involved in, it’s hard not to notice that with every endeavor, she points out the many other volunteers and leaders whose commitment she admires. “I think we’re really lucky in St. Louis,” she says. “We have so many people who are willing to take responsibility and work on behalf of something they believe in. I see that across the board, even in endeavors I’m not involved in. We are so rich in volunteer talent, as well as fortunate to have a very generous, giving, benevolent community. They’re people who not only talk the talk, but walk the walk—so to speak.” Come to think of it, Wilkinson has done her fair share of walking, herself.