The same yellowing index card guided Jennifer Ford Reedy from grade school to college.

"It's nice to be important," read her mother's message, "but it's more important to be nice."

A go-getter from the outset, the president of the Bush Foundation first "went big," she said, as president of her elementary school store, overturning a deficit from a predecessor who splurged on backpacks imprinted with deer pictures.

The hard work continued, as did the titles: state representative's page, student member of the county's United Way board, National Merit recipient, Truman Scholar.

And everything was underscored by humility. The trick? That notecard from Mom, tucked into her school notebook. Whenever she saw it, she remembered to stop and question her impact.

After decades of volunteering and working in philanthropy, Reedy doesn't need the reminder. She embodies the message.

"We know she's kind of a big deal," said her sister, Tracy Ford Stacey. "We aren't sure she does."

Reedy was just 39 when she took the reins of the Bush Foundation — which has given more than $1 billion in grants to individuals and organizations across Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota — four years ago. Shifting the foundation's focus to "community problem-solving," she has boosted awards for racial and economic disparities by almost 50 percent and has continued to amass accolades, including garnering a spot on the list of "40 Under 40" leaders by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal and being named among "The Innovatives" (15 leaders "achieving through innovation") by TwinCities Business.

Not that anyone is surprised by that. When she first arrived in Minnesota as a consultant with McKinsey & Co., she coordinated the Itasca Project, a private civic initiative by 60 business leaders to further growth and development in the Twin Cities. From there, she went to Minnesota Philanthropy Partners, where she led the creation of, among other projects, Give to the Max Day.

Family ties

Reedy inherited a knack for analysis and creativity from her parents. Her mom, Joelle Ford, is a mixed-media artist. Her dad, Allen Ford, is a professor who used a Ford family night — ostensibly designated for recreation — to teach his daughters how to file their taxes.

"[Community service] wasn't shoved down our throats," Stacey said. But driving Thanksgiving dinners to those in need and sitting with strangers at restaurants cemented a charitable habit.

Reedy earned cash as she dribbled a basketball along her paper route, then returned home and gave money and Smurf toys to her sisters. She volunteered, even when it made her miserable, and thought about becoming a senator because it would push her to achieving greater good.

"She wouldn't throw trash on the ground because she didn't want it to be held against her when she ran for president," Stacey said.

But her mother wondered if the cutthroat world of politics was the right place for her: "It's difficult for a really nice person to be elected," Joelle Ford said.

She still had her eye on a political future when she enrolled at the University of Kansas, eschewing the Ivy League after some thought. As a resident of the state, attending a Kansas school demonstrated commitment to the state, she figured. It was also familiar. Her mother was returning to school there. Her sisters had gone there. Her father taught there.

"I had gotten the signals early in my life that I was smart and that I was a leader," Reedy said. "But I was from Kansas. … Like, I knew there were jokes about Kansas."

Minnesota nice

While in college, Reedy tossed aside her political dreams and found philanthropy. She also married Chris Reedy, and after graduation, the two of them went to teach English in Japan. They filed handwritten "newspaper reports," penning lighthearted editorials on baby names: "It is essential that the name be suitably inspirational."

They returned from Japan when Reedy was accepted in a master's program at the University of Chicago. From there, she landed the job as a McKinsey consultant in Minnesota, a state that repeatedly surfaced during her philanthropy research.

While she was consulting on the Itasca Project in 2006, a participating CEO sat her down, noted that the project was about to end and asked, "What's next?"

"I know what I want to do with my life," Reedy said after some thought. "I want to be president of the Bush Foundation."

Six years later, she reached that goal. And her optimism and creativity fit perfectly in what she called a "problem-centric" profession.

She thinks "if we are a little bit smarter and a little bit nicer to each other, everybody's better off," her husband said. "Winners' and losers' situation — she doesn't buy it."

Reedy works in one of the nation's more vibrant philanthropic communities, both private and corporate, according to Kevin Walker, president of Northwest Area Foundation in St. Paul.

"There's been peer pressure in a good way for companies and business leaders to be engaged," said Mary Jane Melendez, executive director of General Mills Foundation's philanthropy branch.

The skill set of a consultant doesn't always translate to philanthropy, Walker said. But Reedy balances a consultant's ability to probe and reconstruct a design, without carrying the assumption that technical expertise rules all.

"[Philanthropy] requires cultural competence," Walker said. "It requires genuine relationship building."

Listening up

Telling people no is part of Reedy's job. But since joining the foundation, she has introduced measures so that when grant applicants are turned down, the door doesn't slam in their face.

"There's a famous quote in our industry that a foundation is a large amount of money completely surrounded by people who want some," she said. "Given this, lots of foundations build moats to keep people out."

The Bush Foundation doesn't have a moat, Reedy insisted.

"We're trying hard to make the Bush Foundation permeable so that we can hear the perspectives and the good ideas of others," she said.

She allots Wednesday mornings for people to schedule meetings to talk about whatever they choose.

"Every position and job she gets, that's really what's she doing, listening to others," Stacey said.

Even when she's not in the office, she's exploring other viewpoints. She's read 14 biographies and memoirs so far this year. Because the Bush Foundation's work requires it "to make judgments about communities that aren't our own, the more perspectives and experiences around the table, the better," she said.

During her tenure, grant payments addressing racial or economic disparities grew from 18 percent in 2012 to 69 percent last year. Alongside this, the number of grant payments awarded through an open process rose more than 70 percentage points from 2012 to 2015. To better evaluate proposals from a wide range of organizations and communities, she's increased the number of staffers of color from 14 percent to 47 percent.

The foundation focuses on what community members believe they can achieve. What can make "people feel energized to go out and do the good work?" is how she puts it.

Planting optimism, Reedy installed some unusual measures for a foundation. Bush started hosting office hours across the state and installed a hot line for people to call to receive application advice. Rejected applicants can request suggestions on how to improve their proposals and can study reports from successful applicants.

In the end, it's all about making everybody a bit smarter and, yes, a bit nicer.

"It's not about what you do," Reedy said. "It's about the culture you create that helps other people feel a part of something big and want to work toward something bigger."