Long before the debate over policing hit the Minneapolis ballot, the McKnight Foundation and other prominent Minnesota foundations gave money to little-known groups for general operations and equity programs.

Now, some of those groups have jumped onto the front lines in the battle over whether to replace the Minneapolis Police Department.

Several influential Minnesota foundations are suddenly finding themselves tied to both sides of the hotly debated public safety reform movement that arose after George Floyd was killed by police.

Foundations don't usually seek to get in the middle of public disputes, but it's not unusual for them to give grants to organizations that advocate for hot-button issues, such as reproductive rights or mining. Leaders say it's part of supporting the community.

"Foundations are funding for the civic infrastructure in our community ... and community does not always agree," said Trista Harris, former president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations. "They're supporting their core work, and there always will be cases of that work that will probably be politicized ... the intention isn't to support activist organizations that are pushing specific policy."

Community and private foundations can't give money to political candidates, according to federal tax laws. But community foundations are allowed to take positions on ballot and legislative measures. The Minneapolis Foundation in 2012 publicly opposed a state voting photo ID amendment and gave grants to those organizing against that measure, for instance.

In the past three years, the Minneapolis Foundation, McKnight Foundation and the St. Paul & Minnesota Foundation — among three of the largest foundations in the state — have given grants to TakeAction Minnesota Education Fund, the fiscal agent for Black Visions and Reclaim the Block. Both of those groups are part of the coalition behind Yes 4 Minneapolis, which this year proposed the ballot question seeking to replace the Police Department with a Department of Public Safety.

The foundations have also funded nonprofits now part of coalitions opposing the amendment. But in both cases, philanthropic dollars went to nonprofits' operations or efforts such as fighting climate change, not to campaigns for or against the ballot measure.

Leili Fatehi, of All of Mpls, which opposes replacing the Police Department, said foundations should support work leading to reforms and social justice, but organizations such as Black Visions and TakeAction "have gone in a very political direction that is unattached to the kind of community engagement ... that is aligned with what I think those foundations were seeking," she said. "I hope foundations would look at that."

But Susie Brown, who leads the state Council on Foundations, said philanthropy often funds a broad range of nonprofits that could at any time take a stance on an issue.

"It may be that an organization is very much in a spotlight at the moment for their position on an issue, but undoubtedly they do lots of different things — research, community meetings, organizing — and those things are funded by foundations all the time," she said.

At McKnight, a Minneapolis-based private foundation, leaders haven't funded organizations for their advocacy work, spokeswoman Na Eng said. And, she said, grantees' positions on the public safety debate aren't a reason for McKnight to renew or discontinue funding. Grantees, Eng added, are working to advance goals the foundation supports such as climate leadership and creating equitable communities.

At the Minneapolis Foundation, more than $100 million is doled out a year to hundreds of groups.

"We're supporting community power building, and we're supporting organizations that are working on issues that are important to community, that are engaging people that have not been engaged in the democratic process or public debate, and often those things intersect with big things that are happening in community," said Chanda Smith Baker, Minneapolis Foundation's chief impact officer. "We fund people all the time that are on different sides of issues or different sides of approaches but committed to making sure this community is at its best."

Floyd's murder last year sparked a global racial reckoning, and since then, the state's philanthropic sector has mobilized around racial equity by boosting funding, distributing grants more inclusively and increasing diversity of staff and board members.

Black Visions and Reclaim the Block aren't registered nonprofits, but they fall under fiscal agent TakeAction Minnesota Education Fund, which also sponsors four other groups. The fund raised $35 million by the end of June 2020, up from $3 million the year before.

In 2020, McKnight gave $640,000 to TakeAction's fund for "multiracial grassroots organizing," "environmental justice outreach," "equitable climate solutions" and COVID-19. McKnight also gave money in 2018 and 2019, including $100,000 to Black Visions' "organizational development and climate portfolio." McKnight distributes, on average, about $90 million a year.

In 2019, a climate and racial equity fund started by the city, Minneapolis Foundation and McKnight gave $25,000 to Black Visions for climate equity. That year, the St. Paul & Minnesota Foundation gave $50,000 to TakeAction's fund for "organization transition."

TakeAction advocates for many issues from climate action to health care and helps smaller groups grow, which is what foundations have backed, spokeswoman Kenza Hadj-Moussa said. "McKnight is a behemoth and I'm sure many of their grantees are on different pages for this one," she said, adding that grant decisions aren't affected by this year's campaign. "These philanthropic institutions are very big and they move very slowly whereas a campaign moves very fast."

Since Floyd was killed, Black Visions and Reclaim the Block have led the push for reforms, organizing the rally where nine City Council members vowed to "begin the process of ending" the Police Department. The two groups are among more than 50 behind Yes 4 Minneapolis and among its top local donors.

But both groups have done other work, Harris said, and grants are for programs or operations, not foundations' endorsement for or against the ballot question.

"Foundations are supporting them to make sure that they continue to exist and continue to do that really important core work even if there are disagreements about the policy positions these organizations are taking," said Harris, now president of FutureGood, a consulting group.

McKnight and the Minneapolis Foundation have also aided nonprofits now on the other side of the debate: The Northside Economic Opportunity Network (NEON), for instance, is part of A New 612, which opposes replacing the Police Department. McKnight gave NEON $1 million this year for operations and capital support and the Minneapolis Foundation gave $50,000 for Black and African entrepreneurs along with supporting groups like the Hennepin Theatre Trust, also in the coalition opposing the measure.

"I actually love the fact that we're not funding on one side of the issue, and I think that's a proper place for us to sit," Smith Baker said. "We're supporting leadership in the public debate and we're providing ways for folks to organize around issues that matter to the community."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141