Six years ago, Adam Conroy was home for Christmas, taking a break from his job managing apartments in Moorhead, when his uncle, a newspaper publisher in Madison, Minn., threw out an idea: How about coming to work as my editor?
"I thought, 'What the heck? I don't know anything about newspapers,' " Conroy recalled. "I thought he was joking."
Conroy reconsidered, eventually moving to this town of 1,500 in far western Minnesota, where he is now the managing editor of the Western Guard. But he wondered about the vitality of Madison, the seat of Lac qui Parle County, one of the most sparsely populated counties in Minnesota with just 7,300 people.
What did he find? "There is a lot going on in this community," he said.
In recent years, Madison residents have raised money for two significant projects: $300,000 to help build a swimming pool and $100,000 to upgrade movie projectors at the Grand Theatre. Much of the fundraising was done by two local nonprofits: the long-standing Chamber of Commerce and the Madison Community Foundation, which was created in 2001.
According to the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality, the number of nonprofit organizations in rural Minnesota has actually increased over the past few decades. In Lac qui Parle County, a triangle of prairie, small towns and farmland tucked between the Minnesota River and the South Dakota border, the number of nonprofits increased 19 percent between 2000 and 2010, from 69 organizations to 82.
Extension demographer Ben Winchester conducted the research, using numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Charitable Statistics. Statewide during that period, the most rural counties — those located far from metropolitan regions with fewer than 2,500 people in cities — saw a population decline of 4.6 percent but an increase in the number of nonprofits of 13.8 percent.
In studying the state's rural nonprofits, Winchester discovered a mix of well-known, established groups committed to broad community support (such as Kiwanis chapters and chambers of commerce) and newer groups devoted to specific activities (such as the Jack Attack Basketball Boosters in Dawson and the Friends of Glacial Lakes State Park in Starbuck).
When Winchester goes on the road presenting his research, longtime residents often complain about falling numbers in the Lions Club or other organizations, saying that "young people just aren't joining our groups." His response? "I tell them, 'You're right. They aren't joining your groups. They are joining their groups!' "
The trend suggests that nonprofits are really a reflection of a community's interests and demographics rather than a response to needs that aren't being served by government or the private sector. "Our rural areas are much more diverse economically, socially and culturally than they used to be," he said.
Nonprofit growth has been a national trend for several years, and while some of these groups eventually shutter or fail to achieve goals, Winchester sees their expansion in rural Minnesota as a sign of civic health.
Sarah Radermacher moved to Madison from St. Paul in 2012 and, looking for a way to get involved, went to work as the secretary of the Madison Community Foundation.
"People are involved because they want to keep Madison viable, keep it alive, keep it a place where people want to live," she said. Voluntarism "is part of the culture here."
Gregg Aamot, a former Associated Press reporter, is the author of "The New Minnesotans: Stories of Immigrants and Refugees." He teaches English at Ridgewater College.