• WisPolitics
1/30/2009

Where are they now? Steve Gunderson

By Neil Shively

The column below reflects the views of the author, and these opinions are neither endorsed nor supported by WisOpinion.com.

Back in the mid-1970s when Steve Gunderson was a boyish 23 and upsetting the incumbent in western Wisconsin's 91st Assembly District, folks around state government were predicting big things for the young Republican.

After three Assembly terms, he was off to Congress representing the 3rd District, winning re-election seven times and serving 16 years before leaving voluntarily for the private sector.

So Steve's admirers figured their expectations had been fulfilled.

Not so fast.

In 1996, Gunderson signed on as senior consultant and managing director of the Washington office of The Greystone Group, a Michigan strategic management and communications consulting firm.

Within a decade, he chose to be tested again, becoming a finalist candidate for the presidency of the University of Wisconsin System. Some folks on the search team, such as former regent Tom Lyon, of Cambridge, wanted someone from outside academia. It was Mr. Outside vs. Mr. Inside and the latter, Kevin Reilly, won out.

Today, Gunderson, 57, is president and CEO of the Council on Foundations, the largest membership organization on behalf of philanthropy in the country, based in Arlington, Va. It represents more than 80 percent of all foundation assets in the United States and increasingly serves an international membership.

For this post, Steve was contacted by an executive search firm. He hadn't been aware of the opening, so he thought about it for a day. "I concluded that philanthropy would probably make a bigger difference related to the innovation and leadership on issues that mattered to me than a public sector that seemed constrained by both the lack of resources and the lack of new ideas," he said recently.

So he gave the go-ahead, but it turned out the search committee didn't want to interview any former politicians. The search firm had to convince the committee to take a look at Gunderson. "I walked in the door for that interview, and you could have sliced the tension," he recalled. The interview went well; the search chair urged him not to withdraw.

"I'm convinced I was hired not for my knowledge of philanthropy, which at the time was very small, but because they wanted a leader who understood change, was able to create change and was able to be an effective communicator on behalf of the importance of change."

Gunderson is busy. He lectures widely, from Harvard University to the Brookings Institution. The council's primary work, he says, is government relations, philanthropic legal support ("the best philanthropic legal minds in the nation--bar none"), education, research, communications and programming.

Although the economic crisis caused philanthropy to lose $200 billion in endowment assets in 2008, Gunderson's group is optimistic it will grow in size and service.

Steve's undergraduate degree is a B.A. in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in 1973. He wanted to be a sports broadcaster (big Badger fan), so he went to broadcasting school in Minneapolis for a year after graduation. His sportscasting career never bloomed as he was persuaded to run for the Legislature by former state Sen Susan Engeleiter and her father, Art Shannon.

His flirtation with the presidency of the UW System is a proud episode in his career, he says. He had a "great interview" and when they asked if he had questions, he did. "I used the opportunity to suggest that if the University would be uncomfortable in any way having an openly gay person and his partner as the leaders of the University System, they should say so now and I'd be glad to step aside. ... To their credit, they strongly affirmed that my candidacy would not be negatively impacted by my sexual orientation.

"I will always be proud of the University of Wisconsin for the courage to consider me on my merits and skills rather than other irrelevant factors," he said.

Gunderson lives in Alexandria, Va., with his partner, Jonathan Stevens, director of demographic change for the Bertelsmann Foundation's North American office.

-- "Where Are They Now?" is an occasional feature by Neil Shively, the former Milwaukee Sentinel Capitol bureau chief.
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