Michael Quam Enlists His Gifts to Serve People with Struggles

Friday, December 8, 2023
Michael Quam

Growing up, Michael Quam had a guiding principle in his life, and it has stuck with him, like a porch light in the distance walking down a dark country road. That core value played a key role in his decision to put his career in the banking sector behind him and go to work for the La Crosse Salvation Army as its development director.

“From a young age, I’ve always thought, ‘It’s not your own life.’ It’s God’s life. It’s a gift,” explained Quam, who earned a Viterbo MBA in 2012 and a Master of Arts in Servant Leadership degree in 2019 and is currently president of the Viterbo Alumni Association's MBA/MASL Chapter Board.

Michael Quam with Salvation Army group

The first part of Quam’s life was spent in Hudson, growing up in a family of limited means. They didn’t always have the money to do all the sports or school activities he and his siblings might have wanted to do, but if they could help somebody in the community having hard times or if Michael needed money to go on a church mission trip, his parents found a way.

“They were always very charitable, sharing their treasure when they had it,” Quam said.

When Quam graduated from high school, he had thoughts of going to law school and enrolled at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, majoring in pre-law and political science. After a few years, though, he put his college education on hold for a while.

In 2005, Quam met his wife, Becky, who was majoring in biology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. A couple years later, he moved to La Crosse and resumed his studies at UW-L, this time majoring in finance. After getting his bachelor's degree, he decided he wanted to get an MBA. “I had a clear sense that getting an MBA would provide a better future for my family,” he said.

He considered continuing his studies at UW-L, which had lower tuition, but when UW-L fees were added in, he said, Viterbo actually was more affordable. “The funny thing is, I didn’t really know at the time that Viterbo would take you as a student even if you weren’t Catholic,” said Quam, who grew up in the Lutheran Church.

Quam worked three jobs while earning his MBA at Viterbo, but he still has good memories of those times, particularly working with Professor John Robinson. “You could tell there was something different about Viterbo’s approach. It was very earnest,” Quam said. “In the first or second class I took there, the professor told us, ‘This is a practitioner degree, so you can’t just show up and get the grade.’ It was about depth of understanding.”

His first job after earning his MBA was working as a credit union examiner, auditing financial records. It wasn’t long before a friend of his asked Quam to come to work for Marine Credit Union, where he worked through 2021.

Michael Quam in Salvation Army truck

Early on at Marine Credit Union, Quam’s strong leadership abilities became apparent; he had a gift for making “clock punchers” into “difference makers.” He could work with a staff that viewed their jobs as something they had to do and create a culture where they felt like their work was something they were privileged to do.

Sounds kind of like servant leadership, doesn’t it? It came naturally to Quam because of the influence of his father and grandfather, he said, but he enrolled in Viterbo’s Master of Arts in Servant Leadership degree program because he knew something about servant leadership that is a point of emphasis in Viterbo’s program: servant leadership is a journey on which one strives to continually improve, not a destination.

At Marine Credit Union, Quam was assigned to manage a succession of underperforming branches, and he was very good at it, in no small part because of his approach to helping people grow. “There’s a way to deliver truth with love,” he said.

In January 2023, when he was working for a different credit union, he woke up in the middle of the night with a clear thought as if spoken out loud: “I can do better.”

“There’ve only been a few times in my life that I’ve heard that voice that loud,” he said. Reflecting on that revelation, he asked himself, “Am I living out the gift that God gave me?”

That day, he learned that the La Crosse Salvation Army was looking for a development director, someone to lead fundraising efforts as the organization worked to strengthen its ability to serve the homeless and fulfill its other missions.

The job offer came quickly, but Quam had qualms, wondering why they seemed to want him so badly. “I’m a guy who understands banking and business and regulation. I knew nothing about the world of nonprofits,” he said.

He called the divisional headquarters and asked, “why me.” After he was told it was his great track record of turning things around for Marine Credit Union, he said he knew they were offering him the job for the right reason.

Michael Quam on TV

His own motivation for taking the job centered on legacy, wanting his children and their children to know that he had made a difference, playing a key role in helping expand the reach of Salvation Army services.

A big part of Quam’s work so far has been increasing awareness about the Salvation Army and making it a more public-facing organization. He has an office at the Salvation Army building that houses the homeless shelter in downtown La Crosse, but he’s rarely there, preferring to get out and strengthen connections in the community and make new ones.

That’s especially important for making progress in addressing homelessness. “We have a large homeless population that is increasing, and no one entity can solve that alone,” Quam said. “It takes all the players and the citizens, too. When the community shows up, that’s when things get done.”