An emergency homeless shelter. A residential and retail development meant to spark change along the Green Line light rail. An organization that helps young black men get on their feet and another that helps young women see their beauty and worth.
The St. Paul & Minnesota Community Foundations have poured millions into those causes and hundreds more as a quiet giant of the Twin Cities philanthropy scene. Their combined $1.3 billion in assets make them one of the largest community foundations in the country and the biggest in Minnesota — outpacing even a flashier counterpart in Minneapolis.
But after working behind the scenes for decades, the two foundations, which share a CEO, staff and governing board, are shining more light on their work at a time when donors and community members want more information and input on philanthropy and its impact. They give away $100 million each year to more than 2,000 charities.
“We have a tradition of being a bit quieter. Our point of view is we want to lift up community-based organizations on the ground,” said Ann Mulholland, the foundations’ vice president of community impact. “One of the things we learned: Sometimes the community needs us to use our voice more.”
The foundations are abandoning the moniker “Minnesota Philanthropy Partners” that they’ve used for nearly a decade and are going back to their roots with their joint foundation name. The leaders are talking more about their work in advancing equity, strengthening healthy communities and broadening philanthropy.
Among those initiatives: giving assistance to 17 separate community foundations and affiliates across the state and extra outreach to people whose donor-advised funds comprise most of the foundations’ annual giving.
“The new generation is stepping on the accelerator for change,” said Eric Jolly, the foundations’ CEO and president. “They want to see the direct impact of their gifts.”
Listening to the community
Jolly, who joined the foundations in 2015 after serving as CEO of the Science Museum of Minnesota, said he’s trying to disrupt the traditional top-down philanthropy model. They’re gathering data through East Metro Pulse, a biannual survey of residents in Dakota, Ramsey and Washington counties, and trying to give communities more input in decisions.
For example, they helped form the Council on Black Male Success, which brings nonprofits and people together to discuss how philanthropy can better meet community needs. The foundations hired an outside consultant to help guide the group through candid conversations about what works or doesn’t.
“It’s about helping communities care for themselves,” Jolly said.
Robin Hickman used grants from the St. Paul Foundation to help start “Lovin’ the Skin I’m In,” a program for middle-school youth that explores societal beauty standards, self-esteem and identity.
“They have always been committed to supporting grass-roots organizations, diverse communities, without labeling it that,” said Hickman, who has been on several of the foundations’ advisory boards.
The foundations’ latest effort is investing $250,000 in media education to address racial stereotypes and underrepresentation of communities of color and some religious and ethnic groups in news coverage. The grants are part of a national, $24 million Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation initiative launched in 2016 by the Michigan-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said they’re a key community partner.
“They are focused on the disparities in the community and how we are not going to mask over them but end them,” said Coleman, now the CEO of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity. “They lead by example.”
Risks and inspiration
Part of the role of a community foundation is to invest in new ideas and take risks. In many instances, foundation leaders said, the risk has paid off.
In 2009, they created the nonprofit GiveMN, which launched Give to the Max Day, a one-day annual online fundraiser that raised more than $20 million last year. They helped professional soccer player and St. Paul native Tony Sanneh launch his foundation, which now helps 13,000 kids a year with its budget of $3.5 million.
“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for [the foundations],” Sanneh said.
The St. Paul & Minnesota Community Foundations contributed $50,000 to the launch of the St. Paul Downtown Alliance, a group that represents businesses, nonprofits, government entities, residents and entrepreneurs. And when city leaders began considering a $15 minimum wage — an issue still being debated — the foundations commissioned a study on the potential impacts from the nonpartisan Citizens League.
“We get in really early and provide that leadership and partnership with community when they have ideas,” Mulholland said.
But some big ideas come up short.
The St. Paul Foundation hosted the 2013 Forever St. Paul Challenge, which awarded up to $1 million in assistance for the best idea to improve life in St. Paul. The winner was The Urban Oasis food hub. It became its own nonprofit but closed in 2016 when it couldn’t find sustained funding.
“It’s always disappointing, but I feel good that we are willing to try new things,” Mulholland said.
The foundations’ nearly 900 donor-advised funds make up almost 90 percent of the money given away through the foundation each year.
Melanie Kleiss of St. Paul opened a donor-advised fund in 2016. Before that, she gave sporadically to charities. The foundations’ guidance changed that.
“I have learned a lot personally about all the great work happening in the Twin Cities and the state,” Kleiss said. “I have been giving more than I’ve ever given before. It feels awesome.”