What are community foundations doing to help build community? That’s the question posed in a recent commentary in the Star Tribune (“Have community foundations lost sight of their North Star?” June 6). As leaders of the two largest community foundations in Minnesota, we can tell you that it’s also a question we explore every day.
Community foundations play an important and unique role. We bring people together from all walks of life to tackle problems and seize opportunities. We invest in the people and organizations that work to make our communities better for everyone. We inspire generosity so future generations have the resources they need to keep making our communities better and stronger long after we’re all gone. We do a lot of things, but we never do it alone.
We work with communities, nonprofits, civic institutions and the private sector to identify pressing needs and come together to find solutions. Earlier this month, the St. Paul & Minnesota Community Foundations convened more than 200 members of the nonprofit community to bring transparency to grantmaking practices and break down perceived barriers between grantmakers and grantees. And right now, the St. Paul & Minnesota Community Foundations are in the process of conducting the East Metro Pulse survey, which asks the community to pinpoint issues such as employment and economic stability barriers and identify disparities in our communities.
We work with individuals, families and businesses that want to make the most of their philanthropic resources. After the horrible school shooting in Florida, the Minneapolis Foundation brought donors together to learn about the impact that guns and trauma have in our own community, which led to the creation of the Fund for Safe Communities. And just last month, the Minneapolis Foundation launched the OneMPLS Fund, which gives donors a simpler, more efficient way to support the investments we make to advance social, racial and economic equity, particularly in the areas of education, economic vitality and civic engagement.
We work together, and with other philanthropic institutions, to combine resources to respond to urgent needs or to head off potential crises. Last year, when the threat of mass deportation intensified dramatically, the Minneapolis Foundation, the St. Paul & Minnesota Community Foundations, the United Way and many other philanthropic leaders responded by coming together to create Solidarity MN, a coalition that provided temporary, urgent aid to ensure that organizations had the capacity to meet the needs of immigrants and their families.
Over the past several years, community foundations — including the ones we are honored to lead — have seen a tremendous increase in contributions. We have also significantly increased our investments in the community. Last year, together with our donors, we awarded nearly $170 million in grants to thousands of nonprofit organizations. This growth has largely been driven by the increased popularity of donor-advised funds.
Today, individuals and families who want to open a donor-advised fund have more options than ever before. So why do they choose to open a fund with one of our foundations when they could open one for less at a big financial institution? They do it because they want to work with an organization that is equally committed to their communities. Because they trust our staff members to provide valuable advice informed by their experience, expertise and connection to the community. Because they see us bring people together to make our communities places where everyone can thrive. Because they are inspired by the people and organizations we support and want to help them make a bigger impact. They choose community foundations like ours because of our presence in the community, because of our connection to the community, not despite it.
The Minneapolis Foundation and the St. Paul & Minnesota Community Foundations have been around for more than 100 years and more than 75 years, respectively. The way we work today is different from the way we worked 60 years ago, 30 years ago or even 15 years ago. How we work and how we lead will always evolve because the communities we serve, and the issues they face, constantly change. Sometimes leadership means taking bold, public stances on critical issues. Sometimes it means partnering with others to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes it means simply giving people support and getting out of their way.
But at the end of the day, how we lead is irrelevant if we don’t show up. That is why we are in the community, in big ways and small, engaged with nonprofit organizations, policymakers, donors and community members. Because at a time when we feel more divided than ever before, that is exactly where we need to be. That said, no organization is above criticism. Community foundations must earn the trust of the communities they serve. We must honor that trust by being open to feedback, by pushing ourselves to be better and by always asking: What can we do to help build community?
Eric Jolly is president and CEO of the St. Paul & Minnesota Community Foundations. R.T. Rybak is president and CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation.