What gives, Minnesota?

  • Article by: JEAN HOPFENSPERGER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 15, 2011 - 1:06 PM

When it comes to donating our time and money, we're at or near the top of the national charts. Why's that?

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Alyssa Euteneuer of Lakeville volunteered at the Salvation Army’s Coats for Kids distribution in north Minneapolis.

Photo: Joey McLeister, Special to the Star Tribune

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Minnesota's 10,000 lakes aren't our only claim to fame: Those cabins around the lakes belong to some of the most philanthropic-minded residents in the nation.

The state, for example, ranks at or near the top of national charts in volunteerism each year. Its "Give to the Max Day'' -- a one-day, online giving blitz in November -- raises more money than similar fundraisers in any other state: about $10 million last year.

And Minnesota business leaders forged a model of corporate giving decades ago that has been replicated across the nation.

"Minnesota has a reputation for being very community oriented, that people volunteer and contribute not just in philanthropy but how government allocates resources,'' said Dwight Burlingame, associate executive director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. "It's viewed among the top states in the country on a variety of different perspectives... from corporate giving ... to its nonprofit sector, which is a model other states look up to.''

This reputation for giving goes back to early civic and business leaders in Minnesota, many hailing from progressive New England states. Likewise the flood of Scandinavian immigrants who settled here brought with them a collective spirit.

The giving tradition of those pioneering Minnesotans continues today. Their names are behind some of the largest grantmakers in Minnesota today.

Our foundations, our roots

The Target Foundation and corporation, for example, carry on the legacy of George Dayton, founder of Dayton's Department Store. It is Minnesota's biggest foundation, donating a whopping $134 million last year.

The McKnight Foundation, founded by one of the early leaders of 3M -- William McKnight -- donated $97 million last year. General Mills Foundation and Corporation -- which traces its roots to the owner of the first flour mill in Minneapolis -- donated $79 million in cash grants last year.

"Our founder, Cadwallader Washburn, and many other corporate founders really set the stage from the beginning,'' said Ellen Lugar, executive director of the General Mills foundation. "When there was a mill explosion in 1878, killing 18 workers, he set up a fund for worker's families and an orphanage for children. The Washburn Center for Children still exists today.''

Minnesota foundations wrote checks for $1.4 billion last during the fiscal year ending May 31, 2010, according to the Minnesota Council on Foundations. Education and human services received the biggest share of the funds, at 26 percent and 23 percent respectively.

About half of the grants stayed in Minnesota. The rest went to charities and causes around the country. That's a 4 percent drop over the previous year, as foundations continue to grapple with the economic downturn, said Bill King, council president.

Individual efforts

While foundations and corporations write out the biggest checks, individual Minnesotans are no slouches. Minnesotans gave away a whopping $3.6 billion in 2009, according to a Council on Foundations report based on charitable tax deductions.

While a remarkable figure, it's an 11 percent drop over the previous year -- another fallout from the recession.

Meanwhile, Minnesotans consistently top national scorecards on volunteering. Roughly 1.5 million volunteers donated 173 million hours of service to nonprofits and other groups between 2008 and 2010, according to a 2010 report by the Corporation for National and Community Service. That's the third highest in the nation.

That volunteer work is everywhere. Walk into a school and see a retiree tutoring a child. Check out a job search center and find a volunteer conducting mock interviews. Minnesotans also walk, run, bike, parachute out of airplanes and paddle the Mississippi -- among other things -- to raise funds for a cause (see page 9).

Last month, for example, more than 700 employes at Thomson Reuters held a mega-meal packing event for Feed My Starving Children, based in the Twin Cities. Workers packed powdered meals in shifts, both in the company mailroom in Eagan and at the nonprofit agency. They prepared 108,000 meals, which were shipped to the famine-stricken Horn of Africa. "The goal was to try to mobilize as many people as we possibly could to make as big of a difference as we possibly could,'' said John Shaughnessy, company spokesman.

As the holidays approach, thousands of Minnesotans will again step forward as they do every year to donate food for Thanksgiving dinners, ring bells for Salvation Army, collect toys for needy kids, and more.

Jean Westberg, a retiree from Minneapolis, has been a red kettle bell-ringer for 20 years and volunteered in many other ways at the Salvation Army. "I was raised with a perspective to give back to others,'' she said. "It's probably that Minnesota spirit of giving.''

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

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