An endowment to build watering troughs for horses?

Sounds silly, right? But 150 years ago, a generous Minneapolis resident could have looked around the city and decided, very reasonably, that the gift of a few more watering troughs would be a great way to leave a legacy.

It can be hard to figure out how to make a difference in the world. As an attorney focusing on estate and charitable gift planning, I have worked with many clients who care deeply about giving back to our community. They often ponder tough questions: Which nonprofits should they support? With limited resources, what’s the best way to have an impact? A hundred years from now, what will our community need most?

Those were also good questions 100 years ago, when five Twin Cities business people started the Minneapolis Foundation, one of the first community foundations in the world. When the foundation was established in 1915, the concept behind it was brand-new: Its founders envisioned an organization that would enable people to pool their charitable giving for greater impact and address the community’s most pressing needs — even as those needs changed over time.

The very first community foundation had been started just a year earlier by a Cleveland banker named Frederick Goff. In Goff’s mind, one of the key benefits of a community foundation was that it freed philanthropy from what he called “the dead hand of the past.” Goff had seen too many wills that left large sums of money to charity, but with strings attached that limited the value of the gifts to future generations.

Some people left money to schools or colleges, but forbade their gifts from benefiting women or ethnic minorities. At least one donor had set up an endowment for — you guessed it — watering troughs. The beauty of a community foundation was that its donors could be confident that, long after they were gone, their gifts would be used to do relevant work in the community.

Now fast-forward to 2015, the Minneapolis Foundation’s centennial year. In the past 100 years, the Minneapolis Foundation has made an estimated $850 million in grants to improve lives in Minnesota and beyond. Today the Minneapolis Foundation manages and distributes unrestricted endowments left by charitable people for the betterment of the community, while also working actively with more than 600 individuals, businesses and families who care about a host of causes. Worldwide, the community foundation movement has grown to include more than 1,800 foundations.

In the past 30 years, I have seen many clients and friends — some with fortunes, and some with less money but equally huge hearts — achieve their own charitable visions with help from the foundation. I’ve also seen the gifts of some of the foundation’s earliest donors continue to make a difference in ways they could only have imagined.

Take Benjamin Stephenson: A fund of his, set up in the 1930s, once made grants to a local orphanage. That orphanage no longer exists — but the Washburn Center for Children does, and Stephenson’s fund supports it.

Just as important, I’ve seen the foundation work with other local leaders to identify and fund solutions to some of our community’s most difficult yet important challenges. From school desegregation in the 1970s and AIDS prevention and care in the 1980s to advocacy for all-day kindergarten in the past decade, the causes we’ve tackled reflect the changing face of Minnesota.

So what’s today’s challenge? At the foundation, we think it’s equity. As a community, we cannot reach our full potential until everyone has a real shot at success, no matter where they start out in life. We envision OneMinneapolis: A city where all children have access to excellent schools. A city where everyone who needs a stable, living-wage job can find one. A city where everyone is empowered to get involved in civic life.

A century from now, will our community still be facing these challenges? I don’t know. I do know, however, that we don’t need watering troughs.

And the Minneapolis Foundation has assured the relevancy of gifts made 100 years ago — as well as last week.


Lowell Stortz is a member of the Minneapolis Foundation’s Board of Trustees.