Impact Story: Ann Oleson

Share this post

Growing up, Ann Oleson didn’t have to look far to see philanthropy in action. Her parents, Claude and Mary Greiner, gave of their time, talent and treasure in their church and in their community of Wellman, Iowa. So, in turn, did Ann and her brother and sister.

“There were always service projects,” says Ann, co-founder of Return on Good.

One of Ann’s earliest memories of philanthropy was helping with soup suppers to raise money to bring relief to starving children and families during the Ethiopia famine in the mid-1980s. Ann remembers making the 30-mile trip to Iowa City late at night with her family to pick up day-old doughnuts for the soup suppers.

“The doughnuts were going to be thrown away and the manager left them outside for us so that we could take them home and freeze them for the suppers,” Ann recalls. “My dad and I still talk about those late-night car rides in our old Oldsmobile. It’s a very vivid memory for me.”

And so is the end result: Their church raised thousands of dollars for the relief effort. Those philanthropic seeds planted early in her life ultimately led to a lifetime of philanthropy and, ultimately, to the founding of Return on Good.

Ann talks about her philanthropic journey, including why she started Return on Good.

Return on Good: When did you first start thinking about philanthropy? Ann: My family has always been incredibly generous with treasure, time and talent. And we grew up in 4-H, which empowers young people to lead for a lifetime. The four Hs in 4-H are the four values and they stand for Head, Heart, Hands, and Health. ‘Hands’ is about bringing your hands to greater service. So, every month, from fourth grade until my senior year in high school, our 4-H club did projects that were related to service in our community.

Return on Good: As an adult, how have you expressed philanthropy in your community? Ann: After graduating from Iowa State University, we moved to Cedar Rapids and I joined the Junior League of Cedar Rapids, which started in New York in 1901 by Mary Harriman. Junior League is a women’s volunteer organization aimed at improving communities and the social, cultural and, and political fabric of civil society. Each year they have a service project, everything from giving suitcases filled with household items to teens who age out of the foster care system to mattresses for kids who don’t have them. Through that organization, I met some of my best friends and had the opportunity to give not only of my treasure, but of my time, including serving as VP on the board. Following my involvement in Junior League, I got involved in a lot of different organizations. I was asked to join the leadership board of the United Way, which supports an amazing number of organizations in our community. One of my favorite things about United Way was the opportunity to give to what I was most passionate about, like mammograms for women and helping the homeless. I also joined the board of Waypoint, which provides critical services for those who are homeless or at risk of being homeless. So that’s been a real passion of mine and I’ve been significantly involved in that over the last few years. I’ve also been involved in our children’s school and booster club as well as on several boards and committees at universities. Return on Good: What’s the largest philanthropic effort you’ve ever realized?

Ann: As I think about philanthropy, I think about impact. That is one of the reasons we started Return on Good. We believe that philanthropy isn’t just about writing a check, but it’s also about giving of your time and your talent. I got involved in Big Brothers Big Sisters and met my Little Sister when she was in fourth grade at what was then called Taylor Elementary School. The majority of the kids qualified for free and reduced lunch. There were a lot of opportunities my Little Sister didn’t have. Her parents didn’t have a car. They didn’t have a washer and dryer in their house. They sold candy bars in order to have enough money for groceries. That’s not the way I grew up so becoming her Big Sister was eye-opening for me. So every week, I went to school and met with her. It was a really special bond that we started to build over the years. The coolest success I have witnessed is seeing my Little Sister be the first in her family to graduate from high school and college and to be a homeowner. The time and the money (Big Magic Breakfast and Bowl-a-thon) given to the organization was philanthropy, but I feel like the return on good that I received from it was a beautiful relationship and incredibly successful friend. Return on Good: What exactly is Return on Good? Ann: Return on Good is a strategic philanthropy company. We help people, organizations and corporations do the most good.

Return on Good: Why did you start Return on Good? Ann: When we interviewed Clarence Wooten for this feature, he really crystalized this for me. He talked about the first third of your life being about learning, the second part about earning and the third part about returning. We feel like it is the time in our life to spend more time giving back so we can return a lot. But we also can learn every step of the way about a number of amazing nonprofits that are doing beautiful work and about people who want to make an enduring impact through philanthropy.

Learn more about Ann Oleson & Return on Good.

Ready to Do the Most Good?

If you’re a philanthropist with an inspiring story to tell (or know someone who is), contact Return on Good. We may select you for our I Am a Philanthropist initiative.