As Initiative Foundation founding president Kathy Gaalswyk embarks on a new stage in her life, we asked her what she’s learned from her 30 years of advocating for Central Minnesota.
Elizabeth Foy Larson | Photography by Andrea Baumann
When Kathy Gaalswyk was growing up in suburban Los Angeles, she and her friends spent their weekends at the beach in Malibu. Like most California kids, she assumed her future would unfold on the West Coast, working as a lawyer in a part of the world that is so sun-kissed no one feels compelled to talk about the weather.
Flash forward: Love has brought Gaalswyk to Pillager, where her husband, Neal, owns a farm with his father. The winters are dark and cold and the summers, while glorious, are short and buggy. But with each passing day, Gaalswyk discovers deep connections with the people she meets. And she is sustained by how close her everyday world is to nature. Central Minnesota is the perfect place to raise their three young children. The region just feels like home.
What Gaalswyk doesn’t yet know is that this special place will teach her lessons she’ll carry with her for the rest of her life. As the founding president of the Initiative Foundation (originally called the Central Minnesota Initiative Fund), Gaalswyk has found wisdom across the region—from the passionate and creative people who helped give shape to the Minnesota Initiative Foundations to the strength and perseverance of community leaders who have guided their hometowns through natural disasters and other hardships. In her 30 years advocating on behalf of the region, she’s learned to trust her gut, spot and nurture talent and to change direction when new programs aren’t effective. Most of all, Gaalswyk has learned that people are powerful and resilient—and that change happens when you invite them to be a part of the solution.
Gaalswyk will leave the Initiative Foundation at year’s end so she can focus on her other passions: her family; her grandchildren; her work as a birth coach; and her increased role with Josiah Venture, a faith-based initiative that works to build young leaders in Central and Eastern Europe. We asked her to share a few of the scores of lessons she’s learned while leading the Initiative Foundation.
Look to the Locals
The Initiative Foundation was born out of the 1980s farm crisis. For Gaalswyk and her family, the heartbreak happening across the state wasn’t just a headline: They struggled with the same fate as their family shut down its multi-generation family farm. As the leader of the Region Five Development Commission, Gaalswyk intimately understood the hardships spreading across the region. So when the Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation set out to follow the headlines and visit hard-hit areas, Gaalswyk knew it was the right approach. What resulted from the two-year planning process was the creation of the six Minnesota Initiative Foundations.
The plan was to help diversify the region’s economy by expanding the local job base, not by bringing back large-scale manufacturers, but by providing loans so that people with chutzpah and a great idea could get started and other businesses could expand.
“We didn’t have a roadmap when we started,” said Gaalswyk, who, after participating in the planning process, applied for and was named the Initiative Foundation’s founding president. “At the time, foundations didn’t typically do economic development or lending. What happened early on is we realized that just writing checks wasn’t enough—we needed to provide other kinds of supports to build the capacity of local people. So the Minnesota Initiative Foundations run programs and activities that provide a combination of training, technical assistance, resource referral and grantmaking to help local people develop a plan and then carry it out.”
That work was driven by a core value that hasn’t wavered in 30 years. “Technology changes. Generational styles change. But the idea that citizens understand what will work in their communities will never go out of date,” Gaalswyk said.
It’s an approach that has impressed her colleagues, including Neal Cuthbert, the vice president of program at The McKnight Foundation. “Kathy is very savvy when it comes to thinking about how there isn’t one thing to do for the entire region,” he said. “She looks at Central Minnesota communities as distinct. It’s easier to create a canned program and say ‘come one, come all.’ But she does the intellectual fine tuning, which isn’t the norm. Watching how she gets that done in a rural setting is like taking a seminar at the U.”
Trust Your Gut
Nonprofits aren’t always known for the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that drives entrepreneurial success. But today, the Initiative Foundation is marrying its tried and true programming with its new Initiators Fellowship Program, an innovative grant program that provides the next generation of Central Minnesota change agents the opportunity to use their entrepreneurial spirit to address society’s needs while building the business and leadership foundation of our region. It’s a bold idea that hopefully will serve as a model for the rest of the state.
When the program was first discussed amongst Initiative Foundation board and staff, Gaalswyk knew it was worth pursuing, even though it was an unconventional direction. “I have learned to trust my gut,” she said. “In light of baby boomer retirements, it’s essential that we attract and retain talented people to be our future CEOs and managers so that we keep quality jobs locally and ensure that we keep our region thriving.”
Her passion didn’t surprise her colleagues. “Kathy is daring,” said Traci Tapani, co-president of Wyoming Machine and a member of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees. “If she has the support of her team and the board, she will implement programs that she feels will serve the region, even if there are voices outside the Foundation that don’t wholeheartedly agree with her.”
Gaalswyk has learned from experience that not every great idea succeeds. When that happens, she says it’s important to recognize it and change course, but to not beat yourself up over having tried something that didn’t pan out.
Likewise, it’s important to know when a successful program has run its course. “It’s OK to do something for a season and then change it,” said Gaalswyk. “We did a methamphetamine initiative for three years that made a huge impact in terms of bringing down the number of meth labs in the region. There are still challenges, but our piece of the work is done.”
The Initiative Foundation’s mission to empower people to build thriving communities and a vibrant region across Central Minnesota isn’t just a principle that guides the Foundation’s work.
It’s a living, breathing maxim that drives Gaalswyk’s staff development philosophy. “Building a culture that embraces the mission, values and vision of the organization is crucial,” said Gaalswyk. “Because that’s what needs to anchor everything.”
That’s an insight that resonates with Lynn Bushinger, the Initiative Foundation’s COO, CFO and treasurer, who was hired by the Foundation 20 years ago as an accountant. “I’m from a family of blue-collar workers and went to a two-year college because that’s what I could afford,” she said. “Kathy encouraged me every step of the way to take on more challenges.” With the support of Gaalswyk and the Foundation, which offers employees a 50 percent tuition reimbursement, Bushinger went back to school and became the first person in her extended family to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Bushinger’s rise at the Foundation has had an impact on her community, too, now that she’s joined her church’s council. “When I started at the Initiative Foundation I wouldn’t have had the ability to step up,” she said. “Now I feel like I have so much to contribute.”
Invest in Future Leaders
If there’s a regional challenge that keeps Gaalswyk up at night, it’s the building wave of retirements amongst the region’s elected leaders and civic volunteers. “We have at least a half-dozen communities that don’t have anyone running for mayor,” she said. “We have to be proactive when it comes to identifying and supporting the next generation of leaders.”
To that end, the Initiative Foundation has embarked on several initiatives, including a year-long Emerging Leaders program and a Paths to Civic Engagement workshop series to encourage young people to try their hand at public service. It’s a bold idea, but Gaalswyk has never wavered on her belief that it’s crucial for the region’s future. “Kathy has tremendous vision about what our region needs,” said Larry Korf, chair of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees and the former CEO and president of DeZURIK, a Sartell-based manufacturer of industrial valves and controls. “But she also understands how to match that vision with strategy and a tactical focus.”
Gaalswyk’s commitment to encouraging our region’s next leaders is obvious to all the participants in these programs. “Kathy doesn’t waltz in and give a keynote and leave,” said Quinn Nystrom, a member of the Baxter City Council who took part in both the Emerging Leaders and Paths to Civic Engagement initiatives. “As a young leader who is often the only female in the room, it’s been invaluable for me to see a woman be so successful in rural Minnesota.”
And for Gaalswyk, that leadership is just part of a happy day’s work.
An Advocate for Central Minnesota
After decades of service, Neal Cuthbert retires from The McKnight Foundation.
This year will see another retirement of a Minnesota leader who has been central to the success of the Initiative Foundation. After more than two decades, Neal Cuthbert will complete his work as the vice president of program at The McKnight Foundation, the Minneapolis nonprofit that invested in the creation of the Minnesota Initiative Foundations in 1986.
Cuthbert directly managed The McKnight Foundation’s grantmaking to six outstate foundations and was responsible for nurturing the Foundation’s close partnership with rural communities. “I’ve loved working in Greater Minnesota,” Cuthbert said. “There are things that Greater Minnesota people get done that people in the metro area just fight over. In Greater Minnesota, the bias is toward action.”
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