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The Community Foundation for Carver County had modest goals when it began in 2004.
The first year or two, the foundation's work centered on striking up relationships with local organizations and figuring out its potential, said Executive Director Mary Langworthy -- at that time the only staff member.
Now five years later, the foundation is just breaking out of infancy. It works with local donors to determine where and how their contributions can be best spent. People can donate $20 -- or $20,000 -- and the foundation helps spread that money to organizations around Carver County.
"There are a lot of people that want to make a difference and don't have the right knowledge or opportunities," she said.
The foundation is working to become a go-to resource for local nonprofits, what Langworthy calls "planting a seed for future generations."
It has added another member to its staff. It's making stronger connections with the community, but it's a slow process.
"We wish we were further along in terms of the community understanding us," said Bob Roepke, chairman of the foundation's board of directors. "You have to put in place a lot of infrastructure. We have to be sure of our mission, vision and special areas of interest."
Communicating this vision can be difficult. It's more complicated than that of an organization like the University of Minnesota Foundation -- which benefits the university. Many nonprofits don't survive past the three- to five-year mark, Langworthy said, making it crucial to establish connections with the community.
Both Langworthy and Bob Golberg, the foundation's planned giving specialist, work from home and hold meetings in coffee shops or in the homes of prospective donors. Having a permanent office space, Langworthy said, would provide the foundation with much-needed visibility, but the dollars just aren't there.
It's difficult to secure contributions that help offset the foundation's operational costs, such as buying office supplies, paying salaries and leasing office space.
"A lot of individuals want to see their dollars at work," she said. "We want to make sure that we have all our ducks in a row."
Both Langworthy and Roepke said they hope a recent grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation will provide the operational support the foundation needs.
The grant matches money raised by the Carver County foundation. The foundation could receive up to $20,000 -- all of which will help cover rising costs and help put the foundation on the map.
Paul and Sheila Steiner are two donors who see the value the foundation could -- and does -- bring to Carver County. The Waconia couple began contributing to charities shortly before retirement. The Steiners owned two successful construction and property management companies for about 60 years. Paul Steiner said at some point he realized he had made enough money for himself.
"I might as well give some of it away," he said.
The couple give to many charities, but they decided to use the Carver County foundation because the foundation decides where their money is most needed, and it's one less phone call or letter that they have to sort through, said the Steiners, who are overwhelmed by requests from charities.
They have donated more than $250,000 since 2007 to the Carver County foundation, and established a permanent endowment to help teen mothers in the county. Helping single mothers is particularly important to Sheila Steiner, who says you can judge a community by how it cares for its young and old.
"I was a young mother," she said. "It's the women who always get the brunt of things."
The Steiners are modest. They attribute much of their success and happiness to the kindness of other people -- such as the taxi driver who drove Paul Steiner to Oxford, England, to marry Sheila while he was on leave from the U.S. Army in 1945. Though gasoline was strictly rationed at the time, the woman drove Paul, who was broke, 25 miles in exchange for a German helmet and a swastika that Steiner found after the Normandy invasion.
"People have been good to us," Sheila Steiner said. "We're like Blanche DuBois. We depended on the kindness of strangers."
Now they realize that strangers, too, depend on their kindness, something the foundation is helping them spread around.
Nicole Tommerdahl is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.