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Dan Frank: "It's important for communities to figure out how they can attract new people to come into town."

Dan Frank is retiring as head of the Initiative Foundation's community development programming. But his work will continue to improve towns across the region.

By Gene Rebeck | Photography by John Linn

It’s fitting that Dan Frank’s last project is in Pequot Lakes. As the Initiative Foundation’s senior program manager for community development, Frank first became involved in the Foundation’s work when he was a citizen leader in that town. Since then, Frank’s 15-year community development career has taken him to more than 50 hometowns across the region. From Braham to Foley to Longville, Frank has helped towns assess their challenges, capitalize on their assets and create action plans to increase their economic and cultural vitality.

“What I like most about my work is when I see people who love their community and are willing to give of their own time and treasure to make change happen and keep their community a vital place,” Frank said.

A Facilitator and Collaborator

It’s a commitment that Frank understands from his own personal experience. Before joining the Initiative Foundation in 2001, Frank participated in a community development project in Pequot Lakes, where he was a community education director. The Initiative Foundation-facilitated process helped the town make several important quality-of-life investments, including the creation of a skateboard park, teen center and a family center.

When Frank heard about a job opening at the Initiative Foundation, he decided to apply. Within three years, he was running the Foundation’s community development programming.

“The Foundation took a chance on me,” Frank said. “I didn’t have an awful lot of experience other than having a local connection in a program. I didn’t have a lot of experience that was directly related to working for a community foundation.”

But, as noted by Don Hickman, the Initiative Foundation’s vice president for community and workforce development and Frank’s longtime boss, “Dan is one of the best hires we’ve ever made. Not only is he one of the kindest, most patient people I’ve ever worked with, he also has a deep and sincere commitment to rural and low-income communities. And he understands how to work with people—in particular, good civic-minded folks who are passionate volunteers.”

In addition to his skills as a facilitator and collaborator, Frank also helped the Foundation reframe the community development program when the recession hit. “During that time of stress, people had a little less patience for process and a lot of meetings,” said Kathy Gaalswyk, former president of the Initiative Foundation. “They were more eager to get some real things done.” When Frank came on board, it was a lengthy program and required local leaders to spend many hours away from their families and businesses. Frank retooled the process to concentrate the training into a shorter cycle.

The Go-to Guy

One town that has benefitted greatly from Frank’s expertise in community building is Milaca, which started participating in the Foundation’s community development programs a decade ago. Today, the town continues to seek out new ways “to keep the momentum going,” according to Dave Dillan, a local educator and community leader. Milaca has a strong arts community, but “it was a bit scattered,” said Dillan. “So our arts task force created our own arts center and the Milaca fine arts council.” The council’s activities include concerts and art shows.

Frank has continued to be resourceful go-to guy for many rural communities. For instance, following Frank’s advice and guidance, Milaca started a community foundation through the Initiative Foundation to raise money for local projects. Its endowment is now up to more than $75,000, and the local foundation has given grants to support projects that benefit Milaca each year since the endowment’s creation in 2011.

Frank also has played a leadership role at the state level in the field of community development. In 2007, he helped organize a group called Friends in the Field, which brings together community development professionals to get to know each other, discuss current issues relevant to their work, and forge new collaborations that better serve their communities.

“He really knows how to bring people to the table,” said Friends in the Field co-founder Joyce Hoelting, who is the assistant director of the University of Minnesota’s Extension Center for Community Vitality. For instance, “Dan and I, along with others, decided last year that we really needed to diversify the group and be more inclusive of community development agents from immigrant and minority populations. Dan's spirit of inclusion and welcoming nature has made that happen, along with a helpful contact list of his own.”

Community Coach

This year, Frank is wrapping up his career at the Initiative Foundation where it began—in Pequot Lakes. Mark Jurchen, a Pequot Lakes community leader who has known Frank for more than two decades, describes him as “a community coach” who makes everyone feel that their insights and input are valued—and who also keeps meetings and processes moving.

Those talents have been crucial to Frank’s last project. This year, Highway 371 is being rerouted to pass east of Pequot Lakes. Residents and businesspeople “are concerned about how that traffic pattern is going to change things,” Frank noted. “You’re not going to have people driving by, seeing your business and stopping. Now residents have to figure out: ‘How do we attract people to come into town? And how do we promote it?’”

It’s an issue that has literally and figuratively divided the community. And that’s given Frank another opportunity to facilitate collaboration. “Dan is helping us work through the process of bringing the community back together,” said Jurchen. “And more importantly, he’s helping us form a really good vision of the community going forward.”

An Evolution in Community Development

Beginning in March, the Initiative Foundation will accept applications from Central Minnesota communities interested in participating in its Thriving Communities Initiative program—an evolving iteration of the Foundation’s community work that blends local philanthropy, leadership development and asset-based community training.

The program takes a grassroots approach to enhance community vibrancy and elevate economic vitality—all of which is supported by a sustainable philanthropic tool (a community endowment) to support the advancement of local projects, programs and services.

To learn more about how your community might  participate in this two-phased program, visit ifound.org/community/thriving or contact Michelle Kiley at mkiley(at)ifound.org.

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