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The Power of Partnerships

When missions align, the Initiative Foundation's network of partnerships makes it possible to do even more for Central Minnesota. 

The Power of Partnerships

By Laura Billings Coleman

With roots and relationships that go back more than 30 years, most of the Initiative Foundation's programs have grown from the ground up. But as Chris Fastner, the Foundation's Senior Program Manager for Organizational Development tells it, the Financial Resiliency program he's rolling out this season was actually launched at 30,000 feet. 

“The story goes that Kathy Gaalswyk, the Initiative Foundation’s founding president, and a program officer from the Otto Bremer Trust were on a flight together when they started a conversation about what nonprofits needed most in Central Minnesota,” he said. Their blue sky discussion about how to strengthen the region’s 1,700 nonprofits with better management, governance, planning and fund development soon formed the blueprint for the Healthy Organizations Partnership that launched in 2001. While the program has had several iterations since, Fastner said, the Otto Bremer Trust’s long-standing support has infused more than $1.3 million into the Foundation’s nonprofit programs, helping to build the capacity of hundreds of Central Minnesota organizations.

That collaborative approach has allowed the Initiative Foundation to better serve Central Minnesota. “That’s really the power of partnerships—they help us to punch above our weight as an organization and do so much more for the region than we ever could on our own,” said Initiative Foundation President Matt Varilek, who notes that the Foundation’s ability to attract new resources from government sources, national grantmakers and Twin Cities philanthropies has been an important economic engine for the region. “For every dollar we raise locally, we’re able to send an average of $4.52 out to the communities we serve. That’s because we have built the credibility, trust and programming to attract outside funders whose missions align with ours.”

Here's a look at some of the key partnerships that help the Initiative Foundation deliver a great return on investment: 

Building the Financial Resilience of Regional Nonprofits



"Knowing that the people from the Initiative Foundation live in these communities, read the newspapers, and talk to people in the coffee shops, gives us a lot of confidence in the process.” 

DAN REARDON: Trustee, Otto Bremer

When Bridges of Hope opened its thrift shop in Brainerd, business was so good the faith-based nonprofit committed to a second location in Crosslake—only to see sales take an unexpected plunge.

“We saw a very sudden and scary downturn in sales at our initial store,” said Executive Director Kassie Heisserer, a loss that quickly threatened to impact the nonprofit’s support for 1,500 low-income families in Crow Wing County. After fielding their call at the Initiative Foundation, Fastner encouraged a core team from Bridges of Hope to take advantage of the training and resources offered through what was then called Financial Resiliency Through Social Enterprise, a program paid for, in part, through the Foundation’s partnership with the Otto Bremer Trust.

“The timing was right for us to circle back and say, ‘Wait a minute—what’s the purpose of this store, who is our customer, and who are we trying to reach with our work?’” Heisserer said, noting that the program allowed the organization to take a breath and make sure its mission was aligned with its thrift store business plan.

 Soon after hiring two new manager and investing in a more efficient point-of-sale and check-out system, the thrift shops were back on the path to profitability. Eight months after their financial resiliency reboot, the nonprofit reported a 62 percent increase in sales over the previous year. The earnings paid for 40 percent of the nonprofit’s mission-related expenses.

The Initiative Foundation’s expertise at helping struggling organizations find stability is one of the ways the Otto Bremer Trust protects its deep investments in Minnesota’s rural communities, said Bremer Trustee Dan Reardon, noting that the trust awarded nearly $3 million in grant funding to Central and Northern Minnesota in 2016 alone. “We have a banking presence in many of these communities, but the Initiative Foundation knows the region’s nonprofits so well that it’s a smart leverage point for us to use the relationships and the reconnaissance they have in the region to get resources where they’re needed,” he said.

Otto Bremer Trust and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Rural Development are the current lead funders for the Financial Resiliency program. The partnership gives Otto Bremer Trust a local perspective on the challenges and opportunities Central Minnesota’s nonprofits face. It’s a perspective that’s hard to replicate from Bremer’s home base in St. Paul, Reardon said. “Knowing that the people from the Initiative Foundation live in these communities, read the newspapers, and talk to people in the coffee shops, gives us a lot of confidence in the process.”

Transitioning to a Clean Energy Economy 



“We look to the Initiative Foundation as a bridge that helps bring together many different interests and pieces of the puzzle. They’re a partner for us in the region that provides credibility and leadership to communities that are struggling.”

KARA CARLISLE: Vice President of Programs, McKnight Foundation

The Initiative Foundation is one of six regional entities the McKnight Foundation helped to launch in 1986 to diversify Greater Minnesota’s economy, but they’ve long since grown out of the “parent-child” relationship once used to describe their connection, said Kara Carlisle, McKnight’s vice president of programs. “At this point in our evolution, we view the Initiative Foundation as a trusted conversation partner.”

Since 2016, one major topic of conversation has been how to mitigate the community impact of Xcel Energy’s plan to decommission two of three coal-burning plants in Becker, located in Sherburne County. Though the utility will build a new natural gas-powered unit at Sherco, the expected reduction of more than half of the plant’s current employees could be devastating for the local economy, where the power plant represents 75 percent of the tax base.

That challenge, however, could become an opportunity. “The plan has a potential silver lining for the community, because they’re gaining back significant industrial park land that might now be available to get new businesses started,” said Don Hickman, Initiative Foundation vice president for community and workforce development. To help the community explore its opportunities, the Initiative Foundation secured initial support from McKnight in 2016 to aid in the SHERCO transition process. That funding was followed in 2017 by a $200,000 McKnight grant to empower those impacted by the transition and to help them give voice as they work together to design a more diverse local economy. The lessons learned here could help other Midwestern communities with aging coal power plants plan for their own alternative energy futures.

That forward-thinking approach matters to the McKnight Foundation. “This is happening at the statewide level, so we want partners like the Initiative Foundation that understand how complicated these decisions are, and the outsize impact they have on jobs and regional identity,” said Carlisle. “We look to the Initiative Foundation as a bridge that helps bring together many different interests and pieces of the puzzle. They’re a partner for us in the region that provides credibility and leadership to communities that are struggling.”

Tapping Central Minnesota's Next Leaders



 “ Our mission is really about inspiring, equipping and connecting leaders to think bigger and think differently about what’s possible in their communities.”

 ANITA PATEL: Leadership Programs Director, Bush Foundation

 Greater Minnesota is fertile soil for growing community leaders, a trend driven by civic duty and simple demographics. Compared to the Twin Cities, where just one in 56 adults serve in a community leadership role, rural sociologist Ben Winchester, from the University of Minnesota Extension’s Center for Community Vitality, has found that the average rural Minnesotan is responsible for six or more top jobs—roles that can range from serving on school boards, city councils and steering committees, to running the small businesses and nonprofits that are major players in Minnesota’s small towns.

Now with nearly 10,000 Baby Boomers retiring every day across the country, making sure those critical community connections are carried forward by Gen Xers and Millennials with the skills and drive to lead has become a growing focus for the Initiative Foundation through its long-time partnership with the Bush Foundation, a St. Paul-based charitable institution founded by one of 3M’s early leaders.

“Archie Bush was from Granite Falls, so having ties to Greater Minnesota has always been critical to the work we do,” said Anita Patel, leadership programs director for the Bush Foundation, which for nearly 60 years has invested in more than 2,300 individuals through a variety of fellowship programs. “Our mission is really about inspiring, equipping and connecting leaders to think bigger and think differently about what’s possible in their communities, and the Initiative Foundation has so much wisdom to share when it comes to understanding the pressing needs in the region.”

In 2015, the Initiative Foundation deployed a $200,000 grant from the Bush Foundation to launch its Emerging Leaders program, an initiative aimed at cultivating new leaders from communities that hadn’t always been tapped before—particularly younger adults and new Americans. “Like Minnesota as a whole, our region has become much more multicultural, and we need to make sure we’re empowering people from every community to take on the real challenges ahead,” said Don Hickman, Initiative Foundation vice president for community and workforce development, who credits Initiative Foundation Community Development Program Manager Michelle Kiley with seeking out up-and-coming leaders to help the Initiative Foundation expand its network into new communities. “Those changes have forced us to think very intentionally about who we are serving, and who we are failing to serve, and they’ve had a lasting impact on how we do business.”

Those changes also helped bring local talent like Emmanuel Oppong, who participated in the Foundation’s 2015 Emerging Leaders program, to the attention of the Bush Foundation, which selected him as recipient of the 2017 Bush Leadership Fellowship. Oppong, who serves as community engagement coordinator in the St. Cloud mayor’s office, is only the fourth St. Cloud native to receive the prestigious regional honor, which will support Oppong’s work as a community counselor, exploring how trauma impacts the state’s immigrant and refugee populations.

The Initiative Foundation’s ability to amplify new voices from across the region is one reason the Bush Foundation awarded it with a $200,000 Ecosystem Grant, a program that recognizes the Initiative Foundation as a “can’t do without” partner that enables the Bush Foundation to fulfill its own mission in Central Minnesota. “Like the Initiative Foundation, we believe that leaders need space and time to develop, which is why it’s so important we stay connected to each other," Patel said. 

Leveraging Public Funding for Community Benefits


“Without our VISTA volunteers, we’d be operating at half the speed. They’ve just helped to make so many things possible."

JERRY SPARBY:  Former school principal and seasoned sloppy-joe slinger 

Jerry Sparby is on a mission to make St. Cloud stronger, one sandwich a time.
Last summer, Yes Network, the community-building nonprofit he founded seven years ago, served up more than 70,000 lunches in low-income communities where kids who depend on free or reduced-price school lunches often face food scarcity at home. A former school principal and seasoned sloppy-joe slinger himself, Sparby said there’s no way he could have fed such a high volume of hungry kids—up to 1,800 at some of the Yes Network’s neighborhood stops—without the eight AmeriCorps VISTA members who helped the nonprofit expand into new neighborhoods and serve a record number of families. “Without our VISTA volunteers, we’d be operating at half the speed,” he said. “They’ve just helped to make so many things possible.”

The Yes Network is one of 16 nonprofits in Central Minnesota that got a big boost last year thanks to 35 national service members of AmeriCorps VISTA, the anti-poverty program of the Corporation for National and Community Service. Since 2002, the Initiative Foundation has served as the region’s VISTA sponsoring organization, recruiting, placing and supervising VISTA members who serve at host sites from the St. Cloud metro to small-town Backus. While some are seasonal recruits, most VISTA members make a year-long commitment to expand the capacity of the nonprofits to which they’re assigned. Along the way, they receive professional development training and support through monthly sessions at the Initiative Foundation. “The VISTA program is a great example of how we use all the resources we have to get the biggest bang for our buck,” said Amanda Whittemore, the Initiative Foundation’s program manager for VISTA and nonprofit development. 

While VISTA is one of the most visible government programs the Initiative Foundation supports, it’s only one of the strategies the Foundation deploys to bring available federal and state dollars into Central Minnesota. For instance, the Initiative Foundation is a certified lender with the U.S. Treasury Department’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund and a member of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Community Advantage initiative, two government programs that promote economic development opportunities in underserved communities. The Initiative Foundation has also received significant support for many years from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Rural Development to spearhead community development efforts for income-eligible cities and towns.

Another key partner is the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). Its deep data research helps the Foundation set priorities for the future, providing insight and guidance on major trends that will impact the region, such as the projected decrease in Greater Minnesota’s labor force.

“Our goal at the Initiative Foundation is to bring every available resource to benefit the communities we serve,” Varilek said, adding that the best partnerships in the Foundation’s portfolio prove that everyone benefits when Central Minnesota is stronger. “A good partnership is always a two-way relationship, so when our mission aligns with an organization that’s as committed as we are to building a Greater Minnesota, everyone wins.” 

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