Global Good: Tom Popp

Some people play golf in retirement. Tom Popp chose philanthropy.

In 2005, after more than three decades in city management, former Peace Corps volunteer Tom Popp returned to Malawi, where he served from 1964-1966, with a desire to assist children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic and other lifethreatening diseases that plague the southeastern African country.

“I kept saying, ‘I need to go back,’” he remembers. “If I don’t, who will?” He returned with his daughter Emily and exchange student, Digo, for a 60-day exploration of the problems and potential solutions. He found a local AIDS education organization doing critical work, and identified a program area where his support could make a difference for the estimated one million children who’ve lost one or both parents to AIDS and other diseases.

“The village takes the children in, they’re cared for and loved,” says Tom. “But they have nothing, no cash income, and they truly yearn to go to school.”

While school in Malawi is free through eighth grade, fees for high school and college tuition, as little as $50 per semester, prohibit many children from continuing their education. So the local organization, FOCUS, designed a scholarship program and Tom wrote grants to support it. Among the venture’s first funders were Rotary International and Downtown Madison Rotary.

In 2010, Tom decided to take his fundraising show to Princeton, his alma mater. There an anonymous donor, moved by Tom’s stories, donated $75,000 to establish The Malawian Orphans Fund to provide permanent resources for scholarships. Tom says Madison Community Foundation was a great fit for his field of interest fund.

“MCF had the track record,” he says. “My donor was more than satisfied.”

The donor’s generosity has flourished over the years. Through additional gifts, the fund is now worth nearly $540,000 and has supported more than 120 students through scholarships every year.

Tom tries to visit Malawi every other year for progress updates and, especially, to meet and mentor the students. He encourages them to work hard and graduate, help other family members do the same, and stay in Malawi to sustain the country’s future.

“They are becoming teachers and nurses, they have the gift of leadership, and they support each other,” says Tom. “It melts my heart.”


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