Sheila Milton
UW Credit Union Vice President of DEI Sheila Milton

Fund finances racial equity programs

UW Credit Union invests $1.5 million to improve community’s financial well-being.

January 12, 2022

Amid the social and financial unrest of 2020, UW Credit Union employees set out to make a difference in their community. 

The $4.6 billion asset credit union in Madison, Wis., had burgeoning diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts, but took their philanthropy to new levels with the UW Credit Union Fund for Racial Equity

The fund, which invested $1.5 million in Madison and Milwaukee organizations that remove barriers for people of color, stemmed from a desire to improve financial stability and close the education achievement gap in the credit union’s membership base.

“We didn't want to just stand by,” UW Credit Union Vice President of DEI Sheila Milton says of when the idea for the fund was first brought up in 2020. “We had the funds and wanted to pay it back. And I think we also wanted to do it because we were hoping others would say, ‘How can we do it?’”

The UW Credit Union Fund for Racial Equity applies an equity lens to the funding process. Rather than treat everyone the same, Milton says the fund is based on equity, which is “when you recognize that people have different circumstances and different life experiences, and you meet them where they're at. You give them what they need.”

That was the goal of the fund—finding people in need and giving them the resources to improve their situation. UW Credit Union Community Partnerships Manager Steph Harrill Kyle believes doing this work is part of the credit union mission.

“Financial inclusion and equity are at the heart of social justice,” she says. “As a credit union, we have a responsibility to support that; to be a part of the solution. Our social mission is to improve the financial well-being of people, and a way we can do that is to focus on those groups historically excluded by financial services.”

The credit union worked quickly to distribute the funds because Harrill Kyle says recipients have dealt with centuries-long barriers. She says funding began in January 2021 and was completed by May.

“We embraced the approach of thoughtful urgency,” Harrill Kyle says. “We're stewards of our members' funds, and that's not a responsibility we take lightly. 

“But also, the money needed to go to work. We couldn't have an equity fund and do traditional philanthropy because traditional philanthropy is often rooted in practices that reward organizations with ample resources and time.”

‘Listen to and engage with people who are connected in the community.’
Sheila Milton

With that in mind, the credit union wanted to be a true partner, understand the needs of the recipients, and show up in ways that weren’t just by providing money.

The credit union assisted recipients in attending the annual Wisconsin Leadership Summit to spur professional development while also engaging with partners directly through various community events and product drives. 

When deciding where to distribute the money, UW Credit Union entrusted a community advisory group consisting of people of color who had a variety of life experiences to read the applications and decide where the funds went. 

Then, they trusted the selected organizations to put the dollars to work where they needed them most.

“You have to listen to and engage with people who are connected in the community so you can make sure the money you're providing is going to organizations that are going to make a big difference,” Milton says.

UW Credit Union prioritized initiatives created and led by Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) community members to serve the BIPOC community.

Ultimately, UW Credit Union, United Way of Dane County, and United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County provided 27 organizations in the greater Milwaukee and Madison areas with racial equity program grants totaling $1.5 million. Another 24 organizations received emergency grants totaling nearly $500,000.

“There are so many recipients that we're getting to know and exploring how we can build up those relationships,” Harrill Kyle says. “We're hopeful we can lift those outcomes and stories specifically to shine a light on the partners and the work they're doing.”