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By Lisa Meyers McClintick | Illustration by Chris McAllister

Past Program Participants become donors to keep the good momentum going.

Takeaways: The Initiative Foundation, like all community foundations, depends upon a mix of contributors to deliver quality programming, difference-making grants and economic development activity to support the region it serves. When individual donors share their resources--from gifts of cash to planned giving options such as real estate, stocks, bonds or retirement assets--their contributions are mingled with other revenue sources and invested in a general endowment. The endowment principal is never spent. Only interest earnings are used to fund the work of the Foundation. Program participants are central to the Foundation's donor mix. Here's how they give back.

On any given day in the icy grip of winter, an estimated one in eight people struggle to pay for heat while bills for health care and other necessities pile up. Poverty hits particularly hard in northern states where heat is as essential as water and food. Like any widespread and complex social challenge, energy scarcities could be considered overwhelming and too tough to tackle. But bring together enough expertise, resources, donations and a can-do spirit, and it’s surmountable. That’s certainly been the case for the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) in Backus, a nonprofit organization with a mission to make solar energy accessible to people of all income levels.

Initiative Foundation funding can provide the spark that ignites great ideas—including nonprofits like RREAL—and the expertise to give programs an essential push forward. No one understands that need for momentum like the people who’ve been on the receiving end of grants, loans, program participation and technical assistance from the Initiative Foundation.

“Donations drive our work,” said Carrie Tripp, the Initiative Foundation’s vice president of external relations. “The more people who donate, the more we can do to get into our communities to help children and families survive, thrive and grow.”

In 2016, the Initiative Foundation awarded 176 grants throughout the region. The $1.4 million infusion of funding helped low-income children in the Mille Lacs area with dental care, advanced literacy efforts for preschool kids in the Mora area, helped provide lunches for children in Sherburne County, and provided funding for a revitalization project in downtown Cambridge. And that’s just a sampling. Initiative Foundation-hosted Partner Funds awarded another $700,000-plus in donor-generated grants throughout the region, for a total of more than $2.4 million in grants.

People who participate in and benefit from Initiative Foundation programs—from community development initiatives to nonprofit educational workshops—are often among those individuals who later make donations to support the Foundation’s work. Here’s a look at a few program participants who are paying it forward:

Katy Botz: Giving back to those who helped

A Backus resident for more than 40 years, Katy Botz knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a community’s generosity. When her family lost their home to a fire in 1976, the town rallied and helped get them back on their feet.

With a desire to give back to her community, Botz joined a team of residents who came together for an Initiative Foundation Healthy Communities Partnership effort in 2007. The group, Backus Area Partners, lobbied for a new street light at a dangerous Highway 371 intersection, upgraded the city park, stepped up a battle against meth and addiction, beautified the town sign and downtown pride, and worked to attract medical facilities to their hometown.

The effort brought together leaders who still reach out to each other to get local projects done. Botz was inspired to get more involved, serving as the school board’s clerk/treasurer and as a member of the Region Five Development Commission.

“It’s a really giving community with a lot of volunteer activity,” said Botz, who has been giving annually to the Initiative Foundation since 2009. “We like to pay it forward.”

Charlotte Stephens: Helping with parks

Whether it’s finding grants, sculpting master plans or the nitty-gritty work of spring cleanup at St. Cloud’s River Bluffs Regional Park, chances are good that Charlotte Stephens is involved.“I’m an advocate for natural parks and trails and social justice in the community,” Stephens said.

The longtime resident and devoted volunteer was able to address both topics as part of the Greater St. Cloud Community Pillars program, an Initiative Foundation-supported effort to prioritize projects and values that strengthen the economy and quality of life for the Greater St. Cloud area. She’s also been involved in Mississippi Partners, a regional public and private coalition that works on a master plan for the river corridor.

Stephens said she’s known about the Initiative Foundation for at least 25 years, but didn’t realize until she started donating two years ago that the nonprofit relied on individuals as well.

“I’ve always been impressed by how much they’re doing to benefit people and communities in the region,” she said. “I hope to keep donating to the Initiative Foundation in future years. I like to support groups I think are doing positive things.”

Jason Edens: Sharing renewable energy

The founder of Rural Renewable Energy Alliance in Backus, Jason Edens has participated in almost every nonprofit support program offered by the Initiative Foundation, including Financial Resiliency through Social Enterprise, grant-writing and leadership workshops, and hosting participants of the AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program, who often stay on as employees after their year of service.

The Initiative Foundation helped his alliance evolve from “naïve kids in a cold garage with a big audacious goal” of providing solar power to poor families to a regional success story that could help others across the country as their patented solar panel catches on.

So far, they’ve brought solar power to almost 500 Central Minnesota families. They also are partnering with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe to install the nation’s first low-income community solar array that will be integrated into the federal energy assistance program.

“The ripples from all the good work done here in Central Minnesota have a positive impact on not just the 14 counties, but arguably across the United States,” said Edens, who became an Initiative Foundation donor in 2016. “In a world where one often hears, ‘You can’t,’ the Initiative Foundation is a countervailing force.”

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