A bright red tractor donated by farmers in rural Minnesota rolled into a tiny village in the small African nation of Burkina Faso last month, planting seeds of hope for impoverished farmers.
An entire village in Guatemala — including houses, schools and roads — was built by a St. Paul nonprofit.
School expenses for Kurdish children, hospital equipment in Afghanistan — even portable toilets in Kenya — are courtesy of Minnesota nonprofits and their funders.
Minnesota, long recognized nationally for its philanthropic spirit and volunteerism, has become a global giving leader. Millions of dollars in donations leave the state each year for destinations from Mexico to Madagascar. That’s not to mention the exported expertise of its health care workers, engineers, agronomists and others who donate their time and talents.
“The Twin Cities has become one of the four or five concentrations of philanthropic dollars for global giving in the United States,” said Scott Jackson, president of Global Impact, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes global philanthropy through workplace giving, nonprofit and corporate partnerships and other services.
“It’s a significant center for donors, nonprofits and corporations working on international issues,” he said.
International giving was the fastest-growing form of philanthropy in the United States in 2015, reaching $15 billion, according to the latest Giving USA report, which measures giving by individuals, corporations and foundations. Exact figures for Minnesota are not available, but local nonprofit leaders estimate that hundreds of nonprofits here are engaged in international causes.
On a recent Give to the Max Day, nearly 1,000 nonprofits, churches and other groups solicited funds for international projects. Meanwhile, the state’s top 100 foundations donated at least $24 million to global causes in 2012, according to the Minnesota Council on Foundations. That’s up from about $5 million a decade before.
The sheer numbers of Minnesotans involved in international projects struck Karen Baumgaertner a decade ago, when she and three other global nonprofit leaders decided to launch a group for like-minded professionals. Last year, the Minnesota International NGO Network marked its 10th anniversary with a community of 2,000 folks and a conference featuring a keynote by former Vice President Walter Mondale.
“I never imagined the sort of numbers we’re seeing,” said Baumgaertner. “The community seems to grow every day.”
Paging through the NGO Network directory shows the range of global involvement. There’s Educate Tanzania. Children’s Heart Link. Give Us Wings. Global Volunteers. H20 for Life. Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project. Nonviolent Peaceforce.
Tale of a tractor
Such groups are often born from the life experiences of ordinary Minnesotans. Tractors for Africa, for example, is the vision of 27-year-old Mark York, who was raised on a farm in southwest Minnesota. During a college internship in Burkina Faso, he was moved by the plight of farmers planting with just hoes and shovels. After starting a job at Cargill, a Minnesota corporation long engaged in global giving, he shared his vision of sending a tractor there with colleagues Louis-Paul Ricard and Maurice Hurst. They signed on.
York’s dad, Jim York, learned about a 1950s tractor owned by a retired mechanic near his Murray County farm. That mechanic, Kent Shea, and another retiree spent more than a hundred hours getting the tractor in shape. The nearby Kolander Auto Body in Fulda chipped in discount red paint and manpower to make the thing sparkle. Fundraising to ship the machine kicked in.
Two weeks ago, the tractor rolled off a semitrailer truck in a dusty village of about 400 people. When the much-awaited International Harvester didn’t start, York called Shea, 6,000 miles away. Shea diagnosed the trouble as a distributor cap wire. Fixed in a jiff.
“Being in Minnesota was the method for making this happen,” said Mark York, reached in Burkina Faso last week. “When you’re in an environment where people get excited over ideas, incredible things can be born.”
While Tractors for Africa is a small start-up, Minnesota is home to some heavyweights in global giving.
The American Refugee Committee is a significant player in the global refugee crisis, with 1,800 staff helping nearly 3 million people a year.
Books for Africa is the largest shipper of donated texts and library books there — 2.4 million books in the past year. Feed My Starving Children distributed 273 million meals last year to more than 50 countries.
That’s not to mention nonprofit branches of corporations, such as Land O’Lakes International Development Fund or Partners in Food Solutions, a consortium of a half-dozen global food companies such as General Mills and Cargill that links the technical and business expertise of volunteer employees to small food processors abroad.
The group has worked with more than 600 food companies in nations such as Kenya, Zambia and Malawi, serving nearly 829,000 small farmers.
The trend reflects the do-good traits of Minnesotans. The state consistently ranks near the top in volunteerism. Ditto for civic engagement. Corporate giving. Educational attainment. Per capita international adoption. Peace Corps volunteers.
It was just a matter of time before Minnesotans’ civic engagement at home went elsewhere, said former Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, former CEO of an international agricultural nonprofit who has built a nonprofit to bring the World’s Fair to Minnesota.
“When I’m out talking about bringing the World’s Fair to Minnesota it doesn’t take long to find direct connections to our region,” said Ritchie. “Our international reputation has created a warm embrace.”
Lots of challenges
That’s not to say global philanthropy is a breeze. A nation’s political climate, business culture, taxes, tariffs and reliability of in-country partners make or break projects. Language barriers can mess up even the best intentions.
“It’s always more complicated than it seems on the surface,” said Shari Blindt, executive director of Common Hope in St. Paul. “You need to understand the culture and the way things work on the ground.”
The longer nonprofits are on the ground, the more they tend to evolve. Children’s HeartLink, based in Minneapolis, initially sent medical teams abroad to do children’s heart surgeries. Now it trains medical professionals in the six countries where it works, who in turn train others.
A more unusual route was taken by Friends of Ngong Road, which funds the schooling of about 400 children a year in Nairobi. It recently partnered with Minnesota-based Satellite Industries to launch a portable toilet business that will provide office and cleaning jobs to students, and become a funding source for their education.
There are some downsides to being based in Minnesota, nonprofit leaders say. Big national foundations typically don’t fund Midwest global initiatives, they said. The logistics are more complex and the shipping costs are higher. The donor pool is smaller than in places such as New York or Washington.
But there is no sign that Minnesotans are deterred by these difficulties, said Global Impact’s Jackson.
“It’s an amazing stronghold of people concerned about the world,” he said.