Property is his game, but it’s not the brunt of the work local philanthropist John McKenzie does to make Madison a better place for all. Beyond running the McKenzie Apartment Company, his efforts to bring more opportunity to diverse populations in Madison has come to the foreground of what he wants to accomplish to improve the greater Madison area. He was named Outstanding Individual Philanthropist of the year in 2022 by the Association of Fundraising Professionals Greater Madison Chapter with his wife, Jo Ellen.
Born and raised in Madison, McKenzie attended Madison Memorial High School and graduated in 1971. He went on to attend UW–Madison as a business major. McKenzie’s career started in Houston, Texas, in the real estate field in 1979. In 1989, McKenzie moved back to Madison to start his own property company, striking ground in partnership with his father, Richard, and brother Tim to build the Highland Ridge Apartments in Middleton. The McKenzies found success and continued to develop more apartment complexes.
More recently McKenzie has turned his efforts toward creating equitable opportunities for diverse youth in greater Madison. His donations to the McKenzie Family Boys & Girls Club in Sun Prairie and current development of the McKenzie Regional Workforce Center aims to equip those in need with skilled training to find a career in trades.
What do you think is the biggest challenge our community faces?
I think clearly racial equity and the racial wealth gap is a very serious issue, and it goes nationally. We have major groups of people that aren’t realizing the American dream and don’t feel like they have access to opportunities. That’s not just a seed for not only fairness, but it’s a seed for social unrest, and as a community, we’re not really functioning as effectively as we can unless everybody’s engaged.
We’ve got a cycle of poverty that I think has many roots, but one of the critical things that’s missing is we’re not properly mentoring these kids. We’re not showing them opportunities that they might have. It’s not happening in their neighborhoods, because they don’t know anybody that owns a business or with skilled trades.
What do you wish people in our community understood better?
In our society, we’ve got people who have dug into their own political philosophies. They group up with an assumption about who they are and who other people are. And one thing that I’ve learned by working with the Boys & Girls Club, what a struggle it is for some of these young people. It isn’t just that they’re lazy or they’re not trying. They really haven’t been given the support they need to see that there’s a better way. So I really wish people would be able to spend the time to understand people that aren’t like them.
What is one change you would make if you could that would make life better for people in our community?
We’re doing one by creating this facility [McKenzie Regional Workforce Development Center] that fills the gap that the schools, parents and the community aren’t filling, and that’s a career-driven training program that gets kids to see there’s an opportunity there to build a life. We’ll show them how to do it. They’ve got to work at it. It’s not a handout program — but I really believe that’s something that is really going to make a difference, and I think I would like to see more individuals in government come up with creative ideas and put their money and energy behind it. I think that can make a big difference with people.
What in our community gives you hope?
It’s these Initiative Belts [like the Rust Belt or Bible Belt] when we were with the philanthropic group, where we got the award this year. It was a room filled with some of the most impressive, good-hearted, well-meaning, hardworking, dedicated people that I’ve ever seen. In my experience with this program that we’re involved in, we’re between the Builders Association, the Boys & Girls Club, and as a partnership we’ve raised over $30 million and will raise $35 million ultimately. It’s been unbelievable.