Jon Pratt has championed Minnesota nonprofits for three decades, starting and leading one of the first and the largest statewide nonprofit associations in the country.

Pratt, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, announced this week he will step down in 2021 after years of pushing for policy changes at the Legislature, advocating for nonprofits and leading research on the sector. He will make way for a new leader at a critical time for charitable groups responding to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"If there was a Mount Rushmore for nonprofit leaders, I know Jon Pratt would be there," said Tim Delaney, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of Nonprofits. He called Pratt a mentor who helped him start a statewide group in Arizona years ago. "He was ... kind of the godfather of this [national nonprofit] movement."

Since 1987, when Pratt helped launch the state Council of Nonprofits — the third such trade association in the U.S. after New York and California — the sector has grown dramatically. Charities once relegated to church basements with volunteers or low-paid staff have evolved into professional multimillion-dollar businesses rivaling government and private sectors in pay and number of employees.

In Minnesota, the number of nonprofit employees has more than doubled since the 1990s to a record 391,000 workers in 2019 — surpassing the government sector for the first time in the number and share of the state's workforce, with 14% of all workers.

Pratt isn't exactly retiring; once a new executive director is named next summer or fall, he will continue work for the organization as a research fellow.

"It's always felt like my natural calling," said Pratt, 68, of Minneapolis. "When nonprofits work together, they really can make a strong case and affect key decisions."

More than 39,500 nonprofits are registered with Minnesota's Secretary of State Office. The council, which spends $3.8 million a year and has about 30 staff members, hosts classes and networking, runs a jobs board and advocates for policy changes. About 2,200 nonprofits pay dues, a bulk of them small- or medium-sized organizations in the metro.

Kate Barr, president of Propel Nonprofits, which helps nonprofits with finances and obtaining loans, said Pratt is one of the people who have played a role in elevating the prominence of Minnesota's nonprofit sector. He also led in establishing standards for nonprofits, started the rating tool for grant processes called and has conducted research on nonprofit salaries and other data such as this month's report showing that about 40% of nonprofit employees have filed unemployment claims during the pandemic.

He also has been a force nationally, helping start the National Council of Nonprofits, assisting 20 states in launching their own councils and contributing to the publication Nonprofit Quarterly.

"Jon has been a stalwart in promoting nonprofit advocacy and not sitting on the sidelines," Delaney said. "People over the years have looked to Minnesota as a great leader in this area. ... He has a fan club coast to coast."

Marcia Avner, one of the founding board members and a former public policy director for the council, said Pratt is humble, curious and collaborative, unifying a growing "bloc fighting for the public good."

"That organization is always paving the way for how nonprofits can be better, have more impact," Avner said.

However, unlike other trade groups focused solely on issues affecting their members, she added that the council has advocated broadly for the public good — from supporting same-sex marriage to opposing a state voter ID bill.

"Jon has always seen nonprofits as agents of democracy and a vehicle for people to participate in civic life, so I think that's his biggest legacy," added Jeannie Fox, another former public policy director at the council who now teaches nonprofit management.

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum has worked often with Pratt, and the St. Paul Democrat said in a prepared statement that the state's dynamic nonprofit sector can be attributed to his leadership.

Pratt, a lifelong Minnesotan, grew up in Anoka and is an expert on local trivia — in 1984 creating the trivia game Minnesota Minutiae. He began his career as a lawyer and was campaign manager for Paul Wellstone's bid for state auditor in 1982.

Championing nonprofits hasn't always been popular. In the 1980s, Pratt led the then-Philanthropy Project, a research organization that questioned why foundations weren't giving more to the poor. That led to scrutiny of foundation practices on the front page of the Star Tribune, and foundations bristled. He's also been at odds with politicians. During Gov. Jesse Ventura's tenure, nonprofits faced sudden cuts due to the state deficit, a move Pratt successfully lobbied to reverse.

"His work has really raised the profile of the nonprofit sector in Minnesota," said Susie Brown, who worked at the state Council of Nonprofits before heading the state Council on Foundations. "We've all benefited — nonprofits, philanthropy, the community in general — from Jon's leadership over the years."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141