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Gifts that Keep on Giving

Between now and 2030, an estimated $5.8 billion of hard-earned  wealth will transfer from one generation to the next in Central Minnesota. Giving even a fraction of that to local causes will help the region thrive.

By Andy Steiner | Photography by John Linn

When you live in the country, pitching in when you neighbor needs a hand is a regular part of life.

Just ask Jim Birchem. He and his wife Kathy grew up outside Little Falls, where helping others was expected and appreciated.

“If you grow up in a small town, this attitude is in your blood and your roots,” Birchem said. “If you grew up on a farm, you helped your neighbors when they needed it. That attitude gets carried over into your lifetime. It’s how you look at the world.”

That kind of giving attitude has been the lifeblood of Central Minnesota communities, supporting key initiatives and building healthy economies. Today, the opportunity to further strengthen the region through philanthropy has never been greater: Between now and 2030, as the Baby Boom generation enters retirement and solidifies estate plans, an estimated $48 billion of hard-earned wealth will transfer from one generation to the next in Minnesota.

In Central Minnesota, experts say that the local wealth transfer could reach $5.8 billion. If only a fraction of that wealth were designated to support local causes, the impact on the community would be significant, said Trista Harris, president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations.

“Any time wealth is transferred, a portion of that can go back to strengthen society, especially the community in which the donor lived,” Harris said. “It is a great opportunity for an individual to say, ‘I want a piece of my legacy to stay in the community that I was so passionate about.’ It can be a great gift to a region that supported a donor throughout his or her lifetime, a way to give back and support a way of life that they cherish.”

One way Central Minnesota residents are directing their philanthropic goals is through community-based foundations like the Initiative Foundation. Community foundations focus their giving on specific regions or towns, with the goal of building and supporting a community in the way the donor specifies.

Donors can designate their funds within a community foundation, or they can provide an unrestricted gift to a general fund, according to Carrie Tripp, Initiative Foundation vice president for external relations. “Regional community foundations can help people find the best way to support causes that are important to them,” Tripp said. “If we want our hometowns to stay healthy—a good place to raise families, a good place to work and live—we need to retain wealth in the region. We can all make a difference.”

Central Minnesota is fortunate to have many residents who already have decided they want to give back to the communities that have supported them. We talked to three local couples who have philanthropic plans to support their hometowns now—and long into the future.

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"We want other people to live here, too. Our dream is to attract more companies to town that will hire more people." Loren and Kathy Morey.

Fishing for Vitality: Loren and Kathy Morey

The tiny town of Motley (population 651) has always been at the center of Loren Morey’s life. His father founded Morey’s Seafood Market there in 1937, and Loren joined the business in 1964, when he came home from Hamline University in St. Paul.

Loren met city-girl Kathy in college and lured her to Motley. The two, now both 80 years old, have lived happily in Loren’s hometown ever since, raising a family and working to build their beloved community. 

Over the years, the company has employed a number of local workers. As the business expanded to include processing facilities, a smokehouse and retail stores in Brainerd and Motley, the Morey family’s commitment to the community has stayed strong even though their products are now sold across the United States.

Both Moreys have always wanted to strengthen Motley’s economic base by attracting other employers. “This is a good place to live,” said Loren. “I want other people to live here, too. My dream would be to attract more companies to town that would hire more people.”

And the Morey’s philanthropic interests don’t end there. “We also want to keep the community strong by supporting the church and helping local families,” Kathy adds.

In 2005, the couple decided to put their money where their dreams are, establishing the Loren and Kathy Morey Family Fund, a donor-advised sub-fund of the Staples-Motley Area Community Foundation. It benefits the Motley United Methodist Church; children, youth and families; environmental initiatives; and promotes economic vitality in Cass, Crow Wing, Todd and Morrison counties. 

While they know they could have made their gift posthumously, the Moreys explain that they wanted to start giving now, rather than wait to designate the foundation in their wills. 

 “Sure, you could store all of your money up and just sit around and watch it grow,” Loren said, “but why not give it away while you’re still alive so you can see some of the fruits of your labor? That’s how we wanted to live our lives, so that’s what we’re doing.”

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"We've got a specific plan of where we're going to go, and who we're going to help. That feels good to us--and it helps us get on with the rest of our lives." Jim and Kathy Birchem. 

Helping at Home: Jim and Kathy Birchem

High school sweethearts Jim and Kathy Birchem understand the power of small-town living. Growing up outside Little Falls, they watched as families supported one another through tough times, and they understood just how important that ethos was to their quality of life. As they built ElderCare Minnesota, their successful business of 17 Central Minnesota-based skilled-nursing and assisted-living facilities, the Birchems saw first-hand the important role that even one employer can play in a rural community.  

Today, they are committed to keeping their business strong, and to supporting the rural communities that helped them build it. “In a small town, a nursing home or an assisted-living facility can be the largest employer,” said Jim. “Both Kathy and I want to continue to develop and build these facilities in the region so that people can stay in their own community as they age.”

The Birchems also think it is important that others see a share of their company’s success. “A lot of people have helped me along the way, including local banks, foundations and individuals,” Jim said. “We want to pass on our good fortune to the rest of the community.” 

Recently, the Birchems established a plan that designates a percentage of their estate to go to the Initiative Foundation. They’re glad to make their plans clear now, so that they could feel confident that their wishes would be carried out later.

“When we’re gone, 30 or 40 years from now, nobody’s going to care,” Jim said. “I figure, ‘Let’s do it now.’ With the blessing of our daughter, we’ve got a specific plan of where we’re going to go, and who we’re going to help. That feels good to us—and it helps us get on with the rest of our lives.”

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"We don't give millions of dollars. We don't have that kind of money. But we give what we can every year." John and Ardy Becklin.

No Gift Too Small: Ardy and John Becklin

Ardy Becklin likes to dispel the myth that philanthropists need to be extremely wealthy. Her experience working with the Rum River Community Foundation, an Initiative Foundation Partner Fund that supports the communities surrounding her hometown of Milaca, taught her that even small donations, when grouped together, can have a big impact.

“You don’t need millions of dollars to do planned giving,” Becklin said. “I like endowments because they keep on giving. And many small donations can make an endowment worthwhile.”

The Rum River Community Foundation was born when Becklin and a group of other area residents took an Initiative Foundation-sponsored class on community philanthropy in 2011. The endowed fund the group created focuses on “improving parks, encouraging volunteerism and boosting community involvement.” She and her husband John, also a Milaca native, regularly give to the fund, and the Becklins have established a charitable gift annuity to support their hometown fund. Through a charitable gift annuity, the Becklins can form a contract to transfer cash or property in exchange for a partial tax deduction and a lifetime stream of annual income from the fund.

She might not be a Rockefeller, but Becklin is confident that she is making a difference.  “John and I don’t give millions of dollars,” she said. “We don’t have that kind of money. But we give what we can every year.”

Thanks to dedicated supporters like the Becklins, the Rum River Community Foundation is growing. The small foundation awards several thousand dollars worth of grants each year with income generated from its endowment interest earnings. So far, it has offered gifts to a range of local recipients, including a local arts group and to improve a park at a township hall. They’ve also given grants for fireworks in small towns and to Holiday Helping Hands, Special Olympics and community theaters and schools.

This locally focused micro-giving is satisfying, Becklin said. “When you give to your community, you have a close-up view of what happens as a result of your gifts.”

When they were younger, the Becklins left Milaca for Minneapolis, spending more than 40 years living and working in the city. But a little over 20 years ago they decided to come home to retire. 

Her work at the Rum River Community Foundation is part of what Becklin appreciates about living in a small town. “I loved living in the city,” she said, “but we lived in an apartment there, and we rarely knew our neighbors. I appreciate the neighborliness that comes with a small community, and I love that even with our smaller donations we can band together and really help improve life for everyone here.”

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