|Donna Hurd, director of administration at
Perkins Cole LLP, is the Madison Downtown
Rotary’s first African American woman
Donna Hurd Is Madison Downtown
Rotary’s New President
Service First & Foremost
By Jonathan Gramling
When Donna Hurd, director of administration at Perkins Cole LLP, walks out of her Capitol
Square offices to attend the Madison Downtown Rotary Wednesday luncheons, she is
reminded of the need for service.
“My ideal job would be in a place where I could serve people — make a living — and
encourage people to see the good in them regardless of where they are,” Hurd said. “A
homeless person can give something to someone. It didn’t have to be stuff. It’s not about the
stuff. They can give something to somebody. I was walking down the street one day and a
homeless man said to me, ‘You’re gorgeous.’ I said, ‘You made my day. You have no idea.’ So
everyone has something to give. And when you give, you get so much more.”
Hurd, the first African American woman to lead the Madison Downtown Rotary, is a “can do”
kind of person. She believes in people and she believes in solutions to community problems.
Service is in her blood.
“I grew up in a very strict Baptist environment,” Hurd said. “My great grandmother always
taught us that you are blessed. And when you are blessed, you have to give it back. It’s not
like I borrow $20 from you and then I give you $20 back. You might need your $20 then. That doesn’t mean anything for me. That means nothing
for me, but to promote Him. You wake up in the morning and you ask the Lord, ‘Let people see you, not me.’ That’s what I want people to do.
And probably more times than I care to say, they do see me. But that’s the human side of me. But service is something that I have always,
always aspired to do because I am very blessed. I could have been growing up on the south side of Chicago. I could have been in any number
of settings right now. But I continually tried to educate myself and just look at the world and say, ‘What can I do?’”
When Hurd was recruited by Quarles & Brady from her Chicago real estate office manager job to help manage their Madison office, Hurd asked
herself how she could serve. She got involved with United Way, having served on most of their CST committees. She is a Big Sister with Big
Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County. But she was curious why her boss, Jeff Bartell, disappeared every Wednesday around the noon hour.
“Every Wednesday, I would go and look for Jeff to sign a check or do something,” Hurd recalled. “And his secretary would say, ‘He’s at his
Rotary meeting?’ And I said, ‘What’s Rotary?’ And she said, ‘It’s a group of business leaders who get together. It’s a service organization.’ I
asked her how I could join and she said that you have to be sponsored. I asked, ‘Why do I have to be sponsored to serve? That doesn’t make
any sense to me.’ Given my position, I had the qualifications to be a part of the club. But I had just come to Madison. I didn’t know anyone. I
knew Jeff, but Jeff was my boss. I thought if my boss is a member, maybe I wasn’t of the caliber that this group may want. Inevitably, I ran into
a couple of other people who were members from my job. And I actually sought out membership. It didn’t have to come and find me and tell me
that I would be a good Rotarian. I found them. I don’t even know who my sponsors are now because they didn’t know me. I just told them, ‘I
want to be a part of a group whose mission is to serve. I want to do that.’ And they sponsored me and I became a member.”
It was difficult going for Hurd as a Rotary member at first. She would sit at luncheon meetings with people whom she didn’t know and appeared
to have nothing in common with.
“You sit at a table and the other people already knew each other and they are talking about skiing and going to the lake house and travelling
internationally,” Hurd said. “I haven’t done any of that. That’s not who I am. It’s not that I couldn’t, but that just isn’t who I am. So I had nothing
to contribute to the conversation. I joined a couple of fellowships such as the wine fellowship. It would be hosted at someone’s home and I
would literally stand there like the fly in the ointment. There wasn’t a lot of camaraderie. I thought, ‘I don’t like this.’ And then I was looking for
the opportunities to serve and I’m thinking, ‘When do we do something in service for something?’”
Around Christmastime, Hurd began to see the service side of things and began to find her niche in Rotary.
“We did the Empty Stocking at the Alliant Center and we had the bell ringing and we bought gifts for kids,” Hurd said. “And that was it, at least
from my perspective. And we had the Ethics Symposium and I joined that committee. That was when I really decided to try to stick with Rotary
because that is so important to reach those children at a really pivotal time of their lives and let them see that you have to consciously in a lot
of instances choose the right thing to do. And it’s not always going to be beneficial for you. It might not be beneficial for your group. But it’s
beneficial for the greater good. And that was really my impetus to really try to get more involved in Rotary. And I just stuck with that. I got
involved with some of the youth grants and awards. I read the applications of students and I thought that I wanted to be like them when I grow
up. They’ve done everything. They are serving their community.”
As she served the Rotary on various committees, Hurd’s commitment to service must have been noticed by someone for she found herself
being nominated to be on the Rotary’s board.
“I can’t tell you how it happened, I was nominated to be on the board and they selected me for board membership,” Hurd said. “I am probably
one of the more vocal members because there is just so much that I don’t know. And I don’t have a problem with telling people that I don’t
know. They might know, but I don’t know. And we all know that if I don’t know, there are people around the table who don’t know. They just don’
t want to admit it. So my second year on the board, the executive director called me and said that I had been nominated for president and they
normally call and ask if you want to be nominated. I think Dawn has been nominated and she has said that she is just too busy and she can’t do
it. She said, ‘Would you consider doing it?’ And I said, ‘Yes. I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning, so yeah, I’ll do it.’ I guess this
is something that my family just drilled into me. When somebody tells you or feels that you can, don’t be the person who tells them that you can’
t. If someone else has faith in you, then you have to have as much faith in yourself and you can’t say that you can’t do that. I thought, ‘I’ll try. It’s
one out of two people.’ And the other person whom I ran against actually is the incoming president after me. He had done quite a few things.
Some of the other people on the board knew him. I thought that I didn’t stand a chance, but I was honored that someone thought enough of me
to nominate me. When she called me and told me that I had won, I said, ‘No! This is a terrible prank.’ She said, ‘No, you were voted in and it
wasn’t a close race.’”
Incoming presidents select a theme that will guide their presidency for the year that they are in office. Hurd selected a theme that was close to
“Ellsworth Brown with the Wisconsin Historical Society had his ‘Today in History,’” Hurd recalled. “And Michelle McGrath worked with
teenagers and her thing was inspirational because she inspires the leaders of the high schools and things like that. ‘So what is going to be
your theme?’ Well my theme is the Rotary theme, service. The motto is Service above Self.”
For some people, service means that they give something to someone to make their life better. For Hurd, service means engagement and
“I want this club to look at itself a little bit differently and actually go into neighborhoods that aren’t thriving and talk to people and find out what
are the pressing needs of the community because we can give out 65 grants to different organizations, but if you are splitting up
$190,000-$200,000 amongst 65 groups, it may help them get a refrigerator or it may help them have a program for a year,” Hurd said. “But what
I want to do is put them out of business. I don’t want them here. I don’t want to have to need the Literacy Network. I don’t want to need The
Rainbow Project. I don’t want to need that. I want to drive them out of business. It won’t happen in my lifetime. I know that. But if we start and
if we start to engage other people and find out what they need it is important. Even people who are committing crime, they are doing that
because they need something. And I don’t know whether it is hope. I don’t know whether it is training. I don’t know if it is mentorship. But they
need something. And for me, I need to serve. It’s not a desire. It’s a need to serve. I need to do that.”
And it’s just not enough to be engaged. Hurd wants to see what impact that Rotary is having on the greater Madison community.
“What are we doing,” Hurd asked. “We can write a check. But we don’t even follow up with the students. We do have a mentorship program.
And individuals do follow up with the students. But I want to know what they are doing now. Once they graduate, are they staying in the
community? Are they Rotarians? Are we encouraging them to serve? I don’t see any evidence of that. The agencies that we contribute money
to, I don’t know whether they are making a difference or not. We need to talk and find out what we need to do. And the question I want to ask
organizations are, ‘What can Rotary do to help effect the change that your organization was established to change? And if it is just a check if
that’s needed, okay. But what else do you need?’”