In the early 1940s, Andersen Windows President Fred Andersen took $3,900 from his bank account and started the Bayport Foundation. The first check cut was a $100 gift to Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

Since then, the nonprofit now known as the Andersen Corporate Foundation has doled out more than $49 million to schools, hospitals, museums, libraries, scouting and disaster relief organizations. It's celebrating its 70th anniversary this year.

"They are an amazing inspiration," said Jan George, executive director of the St. Croix Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross, which has received $2.8 million from the foundation over the past 68 years.

"I don't know of an organization that has that kind of commitment and responsibility. Their gifts and generosity are life-changing for people. Without them we would cease to exist in the Valley."

In the past year, the funding allowed the chapter to provide blood to 28,080 patients, help 334 families with members in the military and provide disaster relief to 39 families, George said.

Corporate foundations play a big role in keeping the quality of life high in Minnesota. Though they represent only 10 percent of giving organizations, corporate foundations such as Andersen provide more than half of the dollars associated with organized philanthropy, said Wendy Wehr, vice president of communications for the Minnesota Council of Foundations. Beyond money, they often provide technical assistance, volunteers for community projects and other goods and services.

Andersen is not the oldest corporate foundation -- Target's started in 1918 -- but turning 70 is a milestone nonetheless, Wehr said.

"Corporate philanthropy should be celebrated," she said. "It is symbolic overall of the corporate generosity that the Twin Cities and Minnesota have benefited from all these decades."

Sara Danzinger, a spokeswoman for the Girl Scouts of the Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys, said the $500,000 Andersen has contributed over the past 10 years ($1.3 million dating to 1968) has helped keep things "affordable and available" for the 45,000 members it serves. It has used the money to provide camperships, buy materials and beef up programs in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math.

The foundation awards about $2 million annually to 150 entities. Some of the largest beneficiaries over the years include the Boy Scouts Northern Star Council ($2.1 million), Lakeview Hospital ($2 million), Courage Center ($1.8 million), Science Museum of Minnesota ($1.4 million) and the Bayport Public Library ($840,000).

The library is using money it received this year to build a new Teen Area this summer, said librarian Mark Blando.

"Andersen has helped to make us the wonderful place we are today," he said. "It [the Teen Area] will be a place that teens can take ownership of and give them a true sense of belonging in the library, and hopefully make them lifelong library users."

The foundation is committed to making contributions in communities where Andersen employees live, primarily the St. Croix Valley and the Twin Cities eastern suburbs. In 2006, however, as Andersen Windows acquired plants and companies in places such as Iowa, New Jersey and Virginia, foundation officials expanded its reach to include causes in those communities. Thus the name changed from the Bayport Foundation to the Andersen Corporate Foundation, said its vice president Susan Roeder.

Organizations must apply annually for grants. A committee meets four times a year to select and award grants that fit with the foundation's mission. It also has been a "forward-thinking" program, as witnessed by the 1947 grant it gave to the University of Minnesota for cancer research, Roeder said.

Recent causes have included donations to robotics and STEM education programs in the Stillwater Public Schools and $50,000 gifts for disaster relief in the wake of earthquakes in Haiti and tornado and flood relief in the United States.

"Philanthropy was how the [Andersen] family approached life and how they lived their lives," Roeder said, explaining why Fred Andersen and his wife, Kitty, started the foundation.

"It was not a boastful thing for them. The family kept their eyes on employees and the community. This was a quiet and respectful way for them to give back."

Tim Harlow • 651-925-5039