Preserving and Pushing Forward: Minnesota Grantmakers Face Up to Daunting Challenges

While philanthropy in Minnesota earnestly pursues a host of strategies to shape solutions to the state’s wide-ranging challenges, how do grantmakers avoid becoming weary from these seemingly intractable crises? Their response: By committing to the long view while seeking incremental change and upstream impact.

As these grantmakers point out, working alongside nonprofits, businesses and government, lasting change and diminished disparities are within reach.

Daunting but Not Insurmountable Crises
We’re just beginning to understand the complex ramifications of changing demographics in Minnesota. One of the most formidable issues is the aging of our population. “When we talk about this, we talk about giant systems – from Social Security to Medicaid to the solutions that may or may not be included in the healthcare reform bill,” reflects Mary Karen Lynn-Klimenko, Stevens Square Foundation executive director. “So often these challenges get couched as massive, opaque, unsolvable problems. It’s overwhelming, and as a result, people become disengaged.”

As the workforce expanded at Anderson Fabrics in Blackduck, Minn., the Hispanic population grew in the town of 2,000, located near the Red Lake and Leech Lake reservations. The Blandin Foundation’s Leadership in Ethnically Diverse Communities program (formerly Partners in Leadership) brought together community leaders with a vision for a richer, more welcoming community. (Photo copyright John Connelly, courtesy of Anderson Fabrics and Blandin Foundation.)

But, every monumental issue can be broken down to singular, real people; focusing on improving their well-being provides more than enough motivation and inspiration to push forward. “At Stevens Square, a significant portion of our grantmaking is targeted to advancing big-picture improvements. At the same time, we’re mindful that we’re talking about specific individual lives and communities – our own parents and relatives and even ourselves, embroiled in tangible, authentic and personal realities, not just enormous systemic trends,” Lynn-Klimenko emphasizes.

When the Frey Foundation took on the challenge to help end homelessness in Minnesota in 10 years, few believed this was a realistic goal. Seven years later, foundation President Jim Frey says that, while the goal is still lofty, people’s perceptions have changed; ending homelessness is not out of reach. “We’re most encouraged by the change in attitude by a greater number of people that this is not an insurmountable problem. No one is saying, ‘Ain’t it a shame? We can’t do much – there will always be poor and homeless people.’”

Frey points out, “We’ve seen solid moves by state and county governments and faith, business and philanthropic communities in almost every single jurisdiction in Minnesota. There is not only awareness, but optimism that we can solve this or come very, very close.”

Incremental Change Matters
When we’re trying to fill a monstrous bucket of water, is relying on a trickle worth the bother?

Wendy Roy of the Grand Rapids Area Community Foundation recounts a discussion at the 2010 MCF Annual Convening when grantmakers deliberated about whether picking away at regional changes was enough to create substantial statewide improvements in education disparities.

“When this question was posed to keynote speaker Chip Heath (co-author of Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard), he said moving forward with any change is better than doing nothing at all,” Roy says. “I do believe that if we identify issues as a community, pick one small piece to change, success will breed more success. Small changes on a regional level can become models for other communities.”

The Blandin Foundation’s Jim Hoolihan underscores that incremental changes add up over time. “Last month, I attended a Blandin leadership program graduation in Mankato. The Bush and Southern Minnesota Initiative foundations partnered with us to present the program. I met a Somali immigrant who struggled in a refugee camp, lived in several U.S. cities, and was now in a position to not only make a difference in the Somali community, but contribute back to the Mankato community. I left that event fired up.”

By itself, the impact of the leadership program on this group of Mankato residents may not be considered big-step change affecting communities on opposite ends of the state. “But Blandin has been involved in training community leaders for 25 years,” Hoolihan notes. “There are more than 5,000 alumni. These folks have passed school bond referenda, built libraries, expanded YMCAs, erected skateboard parks, run for city council. When we weave all these incremental things together, they tell quite a story of differences made in communities across Minnesota. The dial can be moved. Lasting change comes when we’re both persistent and patient.”

Perseverance Over the Long Haul
Incremental changes matter most when coupled with perseverance, a will to implement change, a commitment to the long view, and research, collaboration and cooperation. And, as Nancy Vyskocil of the Northwest Minnesota Foundation stresses, “We need to keep making the small changes, even when we don’t see an immediate pay off.”

Vyskocil continues, “We need to remind ourselves that these huge issues didn’t occur overnight, and long-lasting solutions take time. I look at the statewide early childhood initiative of the Minnesota Initiative Foundations and The McKnight Foundation. Multiple studies have shown a strong correlation between reading by third grade and high school graduation. By taking small steps like getting books in the hands of parents and supporting networks like Fathers Reading Every Day (FRED), we will see results.” These types of low-cost, no-cost or strong benefit-to-cost ratio solutions add up.

Taking the long-haul approach, however, can breed frustration, especially when there are urgent community needs.

“For me personally, progress isn’t fast enough,” says Joan Oswald with the Miller-Dwan Foundation. “I understand that building a strong foundation is key, and that takes time. But when so many people need help now, the time it takes to make solid transformative change can be challenging.”

Miller-Dwan is finding balance during its three-year journey to build a mental health center in northeast Minnesota. “While we keep our eye on the final project, we continue to ask ourselves, ‘What small thing can we do now to make a difference?’” Oswald reflects. “As one response, our behavioral health partners implemented a new intensive outpatient therapy program for young adults ages 18-25 who are struggling with acute mental health issues. This program, initiated and funded by the Miller-Dwan Foundation, is unique in that it offers group treatment. In a few short months, it’s become wildly successful and bursting at the seams.”

It is important not to overlook the flexibility of philanthropic dollars to address short-term needs, as well as achieve long-term goals. Quick infusions of grant monies – such as those from grantmakers who adapted their funding priorities to support basic needs during the recession and those who respond immediately when natural disasters strike – are as vital to the community as support for long-term initiatives.

Upstream Impact
Increasingly, grantmakers are looking upstream, examining and addressing the root causes of community issues they’re asked to support downstream.

“For example,” says Colleen O’Keefe of the Sauer Children’s Renew Foundation, “Abuse and neglect are the core issues that drive youth and family homelessness, children in foster care who eventually age out, crime, and the list goes on. It’s imperative that we look at the return on investment from prevention and early-intervention programs.”

This is easier said than done. “Healthy child development and parent support are not sexy, so it’s hard to get policymakers to pay attention,” O’Keefe continues. “But, to make substantive change, policymakers need to understand that these ideals can reduce lost human potential and impact citizens’ ability to give back to the community. Moving the dial is also dependent on policymakers understanding what decreases the number of abused and neglected children and investing in doing more of that.” In other words, as Switch author Heath suggests, focus on the “bright spots.”

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation is focusing on upstream factors that affect a person’s health. “Research shows that what we call ‘social determinants of health’ – living in a healthy home and safe neighborhood, accessing quality early childhood learning, being socially connected to family and community support systems, for instance – are as key to a person’s health as having access to and receiving high-quality health care,” explains Marsha Shotley, president. “Many of the health and cost-of-care issues we have today could be prevented tomorrow if we go after their root causes to improve individual and community health so people don’t get sick in the first place.”

Similarly, Wells Fargo Foundation Minnesota aims to reach beyond the obvious and expected focus of a financial services company during an economic crisis to dive deep into the causes of and solutions to the widening employment and education disparities locally.

“Foreclosure prevention is a critical issue, and our company’s efforts in this area have been extraordinary. But, our foundation is also paying attention to the glaring gaps that mean many Minnesotans – especially communities of color – are being left behind,” says Carolyn Roby, the foundation’s lead. “All of the data indicate that diverse communities are growing in our state. The data also indicate that talent in diverse communities is underutilized. The future of Minnesota depends on developing the skills, unlocking the potential and utilizing the talent that is already present in so many people and communities.”

Solutions Require Risks and Leaps of Faith
In the midst of unprecedented challenges, Minnesota grantmakers understand that now is not the time to be timid. Yet, investing so heavily – through funding, research, advocacy, expertise and collaboration – in the search for sustained, far-off solutions can be intimidating.

“When we’re doing work long-term, we’re not necessarily going to have predictable and familiar strategies, tactics and outcomes,” says Shotley of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation. “Now is the time for foundations to take a leap of faith. Part of our learning process in engaging and committing for the long haul has to be an understanding that it’s alright to try something and fail, then share what we learn. One of Blue Cross Foundation’s values focuses on courage: We have to be able to take risks and learn from them.”

Fear of failure can be paralyzing, yet too much is at stake for inaction. “If we’re determined to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ before taking the steps that could lead to big change, we’ll get nowhere,” concludes Oswald of the Miller-Dwan Foundation. “Sometimes doing the right thing requires a sense of faith.”



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