Under my watch, northern Minnesota’s Blandin Foundation has mended fences and turned itself around.
‘Bremer Foundation must clean up its act,” the July 12 commentary that comes on the heels of a report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, raises legitimate questions about the oversight of charitable trusts. Perhaps the writer, Paul Olson, intended to aim his criticism chiefly at the Bremer situation. However, by not limiting his comments to current issues afflicting Bremer and its supervision, he left a false impression. Unfortunately, by confusing the history of the Bremer Foundation with that of the Blandin Trust and Foundation, the net effect was to give the impression that the Blandin Trust and Foundation are not being carefully monitored. It is error to paint the Bremer and Blandin foundations with the same brush.
In his eagerness to make a point — “Is there any watchdog on guard duty? Who is looking out for the public interest?” — Olson faults the Ramsey County District Court and the attorney general for failing to monitor such entities: “If they are watching, it must be with a blind eye — or maybe just a wink and a nod. Whether the two guardians of the public interest are overlooking illegal or unethical standards must be answered.”
The Bremer Trust has been under continuing court supervision since at least 1961. What little knowledge I have of it dates to my approval of its accounts for the years 2001 to 2003 — before the escalation of compensation for its trustees. While I know nothing about the current specifics of the Bremer Trust, I do know about the Blandin Trust and Foundation, because I have been the supervising judge on the Blandin matters since 2003 (which is also the date Olson’s tenure as president of the Blandin Foundation ended).
By way of background, such charitable trusts are supervised by the probate judge who (at least in Ramsey County) sits for three years in that assignment. Usually, when a judge rotates from probate to another general assignment in criminal or civil, his or her cases are turned over to the incoming probate judge. In some instances, however, a judge rotating to a new assignment will retain complex cases from the previous assignment when circumstances warrant. Because of the complexity of the problems that had arisen with the Blandin Trust and Foundation over the course of several years before my assuming oversight of them, the chief judge of the Ramsey County District Court asked me to continue supervision of these entities. I have continued to do so over the past 11 years.
In 1941, Charles Blandin founded the Blandin Foundation with the express intent that it should benefit the Grand Rapids, Minn., area. When I assumed oversight of this trust in 2003, major issues included a deep division in the Grand Rapids community because of mistrust and disputes over the allocation of annual distributions. This situation had taken many years to develop. Because of the complexity of the issues and the likelihood that it could take several years to embed more transparent methods and practices of accounting and allocation, the court appointed Minneapolis attorney Peter Ulmen (who also has a background in accounting) as special master. His charge was to independently audit the accounts, analyze the problems, review the grantmaking procedures and make recommendations to the court about these areas.
Meanwhile, the board fine-tuned its mission statement, clarified its grantmaking process, and created a website where it regularly publishes its finances and grants. It initiated governance reforms and exceeded its required financial commitment to the community. The result has been the rebuilding of a healthy relationship with the Grand Rapids community and a return to the mission contemplated by Charles Blandin.
In addition to encouraging the Blandin Trust and Foundation in these efforts, the court has insisted on changes in asset allocation to avoid undue risk, clarity of accounting for investments, and equity and fairness in the grantmaking procedures. This has been a time-consuming, hands-on job for this court — for more than 11 years.
So, lest Olson’s comments be mistaken as pertaining to the current status of the Blandin Trust and Foundation, my answer to his questions is: Yes, there is a watchdog on duty. Yes, this court is looking out for the public interest. And no, this court has not turned a blind eye or given just a wink and a nod to the Blandin Trust and Foundation Board.
Margaret M. Marrinan is a Ramsey County district judge.
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