The Rural Philanthropic Version of Itasca Group

When people try to find Minnesota’s secret sauce to our high quality of life and seemingly common sense (comparatively speaking) approach to government, there’s sometimes mention of the Itasca Group. This is a group of top Minnesota business leaders who get together every Friday morning to discuss ways to collaborate and advocate for a stronger Minnesota. Itasca Group exemplifies how Minnesotans come together to find win-win, common sense solutions, and then back those solutions with capital.

In early June, I got together with a lesser-known version of the Itasca Group: the Minnesota Initiative Foundations (MIFs). Every other year, the six presidents of the Minnesota Initiative Foundations, along with their foundation board members and select guests, gather at Grandview Lodge in Nisswa. While the MIF presidents communicate often around shared initiatives, this retreat is a special gathering that allows our board members to join us harnessing the power of the unique-to-Minnesota MIF model.

This year, nearly 90 participants attended the MIF Retreat. The topic at hand was “The Rural Impact.” Collectively, the six MIFs serve the 80 non-metro counties of Greater Minnesota. As became clear in the last election, there is a sense around the country that the rural voice has not been heard, or valued. Part of the discussion was how to better make the case that rural Minnesota institutions and businesses bolster our state as a whole.

Tony Sertich of Northland Foundation discussed how two of Minnesota’s largest private foundations – Bush Foundation and The McKnight Foundation – both grew out of the success of Iron Range mining giant 3M. Nancy Vyskocil of Northwest Minnesota Foundation underscored that Blandin Foundation, one of Greater Minnesota’s best philanthropic partners, has its roots in the forestry and paper industry. She cited that more than 24,000 people are currently employed in the forestry and paper industry and Blandin has distributed more than $380 million in Greater Minnesota.

Initiative Foundation’s new president Matt Varilek spoke about Greater Minnesota’s natural assets, from state parks to bike trails to lakes. He stressed that rural Minnesota’s strong tourism generates $14.4 billion in annual economic activity for the state. Diana Anderson, president at Southwest Initiative Foundation, let us know that agriculture is still a vital part of our state’s economy: ag adds $75 billion to the state’s economy annually and is our second largest employer.

My colleague Anna Wasescha at West Central Initiative spoke about Greater Minnesota’s higher education institutions. Anna, a former college president, stated that combined, Greater Minnesota enrolls nearly 375,000 students and that 80% of Minnesota State graduates stay in Minnesota.

When my turn came, I took the opportunity to discuss the impact of Mayo Clinic, which has 68 clinic locations and 34,000 employees in Minnesota. Clearly, Mayo is a growing economic driver in our state.

There is no doubt that Greater Minnesota is rich in assets. Beyond the wealth generated by the sectors listed above, the Minnesota Initiative Foundations (seeded by The McKnight Foundation) have collectively invested over $455 million since 1986 to support economic and community development initiatives.

One of the highlights of the retreat was keynote speaker Christopher Ingraham, a Washington Post reporter now residing in Red Lake County. He moved to Red Lake Falls with his growing family after once having pinpointed it as the ugliest place in America. He cited a statistic that 54% of people would like to live in a rural area or small town. In Minnesota, 73% of residents live in an urban area. His presentation raised the question: How do we get more people to “take the plunge?”

When people think “Minnesota,” the Twins and Vikings may be the first thing that comes to mind. However, images of northern woods and glistening lakes are not far behind, followed by names like General Mills, Polaris, Arctic Cat, Mayo, Hormel, Schell’s Beer, Red Wing Shoes and Faribault Woolen Mills – all brands that are known nationally and around the world.

The Minnesota Initiative Foundations invest with the understanding that the people who call Greater Minnesota home do so with pride. We understand we have a good thing going, and our doors are open to those who want to follow in Ingraham’s footsteps. I invite you to join us in the conversation.  

As always, I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at timp@smifoundation.org or 507-455-3215.