Inspiring Action Through Art

Lynn Heimbruch HeadshotSpecial to the Philanthropy Journal

By Lynn Heimbruch

How do you celebrate yourself with humility? What’s the best way to make a milestone meaningful, rather than self-promotional? How do you mark a quarter century of doing good to further the good?  

Our team at Northwestern Mutual was charged with celebrating the 25th anniversary of the company’s Foundation. We had given more than $320 million to nonprofit partners, engaged our employees and financial advisors across the county to give of themselves, and made a major difference in our hometown of Milwaukee. Yet, there is so much more to do.

We determined the best way to celebrate our brand was to activate giving instead of just talking about it.

Our decision? Art.

Why Art?

Perhaps more than any other creative discipline, visual arts build empathy, affording us the opportunity to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Art fosters conversation, interaction and collaboration. When inspired, we want to share, connect and act.

We created Giving Gallery: Community in Process, a first-of-its-kind art gallery. Shining the light on our partners allowed us to illustrate our impact through their dedicated efforts and provide a distinct call to action for attendees.

Seventeen artists with Wisconsin ties were paired with 25 best-in-class nonprofits to create original artwork illustrating the collective impact of the Northwestern Mutual Foundation. At the same time, the exhibit was meant to motivate those who visit the gallery to volunteer, donate or become an advocate.

Looking Back: Impact Highlights

Since opening, Giving Gallery: Community in Process has become much more than an art gallery. The exhibit has fostered affinity between the artists and the nonprofits, provided resources to drive community impact and elevated awareness of the featured organizations.

Artists were introduced to the nonprofits and got to know the people and programs helping our community. Many connected personally with nonprofit leaders, building lasting relationships, like Amy and Jonathan Gelfman.

The couple was paired with the Sojourner Family Peace Center, whose work aims to transform the lives of those impacted by domestic violence. Following the completion of their painting (pictured below), the pair were hired by Sojourner to create Mother’s and Father’s Day cards as a fundraising tool for the nonprofit. They even hosted Sojourner’s president and CEO, Carmen Pitre, and other leaders at their home for Shabbat dinner.

For their participation, each nonprofit was also given a $10,000 unrestricted grant. Here’s how some used the funding:

  • Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation connected 14 families impacted by childhood cancer with innovative, cutting-edge treatments.
  • Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Milwaukee invested in school-based mentoring, delivering one-to-one professionally supported mentoring in 11 schools, serving 507 students.
  • Funding allowed Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin to provide 30,000 meals to food-insecure Wisconsin residents, 70 percent of whom are children.
  • The Southeast Wisconsin Chapter of the American Red Cross assisted 16 families with emergency financial support after home fires.
  • Betty Brinn Children’s Museum expanded museum outreach initiatives, allowing the museum to engage 85,000 children and adults in 2018, including 18,547 individuals who participated in programs delivered in Milwaukee’s highest-needs neighborhoods.

Since opening in February 2018, Giving Gallery: Community in Process has seen more than 25,000 visitors. A Post-It Note wall that serves as the finale of the exhibit encourages visitors to leave behind notes on what community means to them, what inspired and moved them during the exhibit, and how they plan to get involved. While the original plan was to host the exhibit in our company’s headquarters for one year, the responses we received have reinforced the gallery’s core message – there’s much more great work to be done.

Turning Hope into Action

This summer kicks off the second phase of the exhibit, retitled Giving Gallery: Turn Your Hope into Action, focusing on the power of the individual to inspire and engage more volunteers, donors and advocates through additional artwork, expanded programming options and events.

  • The Seasonal Spotlight features an original piece of art created in response to the work of an additional nonprofit organization each season of the year, the first of which debuted in June. The piece represents the Foundation’s partnership with Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity, an organization that helps community members to build and improve their homes.
  • The Partner in Residence program allows one nonprofit partner per season to engage and interact with Northwestern Mutual employees and the general public to generate interest and awareness for the work they do through events hosted in The Gathering space near the gallery.
  • From the Collection highlights artwork from the Northwestern Mutual art collection, aligning with the seasonal theme.

Art leads to awareness, and awareness plants the seed of responsibility. Philanthropy is the process by which the seed grows and bears fruit. Together, art and philanthropy can inspire action. Simply put, we believe the inspiration to act will continue to spread, as more are given the opportunity to discover how they, too, can make a difference.


Lynn Heimbruch is the Assistant Director – Strategic Philanthropy for the Northwestern Mutual Foundation and Project Lead for Giving Gallery: Community in Process.

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