Harmony: Passing the Leadership Baton

Harmony Area Community Foundation (Fillmore County)  l  Population: 1,023

Over $100,000 invested by Harmony Area Community Foundation


Harmony, Minnesota has a grocery store, a pharmacy, four great restaurants with a menu that changes seasonally, bike trails that connect in with the county-wide trail system, an active historical society, the only movie theater in the county, a family-run cave that draws people from across the nation that became the first commercial cave powered 100% by solar energy, delightful antique shops, Amish-made furniture retailers, a child care  and learning center, and a recycling manufacturer that makes 30% of its sales from 70 different countries. Harmony’s population? 1,023.

Beyond all of those amenities, it’s located in the picturesque driftless region of southeastern Minnesota, about 50 miles from Rochester, which means it’s in bluff country. Vicky Tribon came to Harmony 46 years ago and has seen no reason to leave since. “We’ve got the bike and cross country ski trails here and within 15 minutes we can be canoeing on the Upper Iowa River, and that’s beautiful,” said Tribon. “”Why would we go somewhere else when everything we loved was right here? My granddaughter says ‘Grandma loves Harmony because she can walk to everything.’ That is true.”

Aaron Bishop, Vicky Tribon, and Steve Donney are three board members of the Harmony Area Community Foundation. (Tribon helped start the foundation and is no longer on the board.)

The Power of a Strong Foundation

Five years ago, Harmony added another amenity: the Harmony Area Community Foundation (HACF). Since then, they’ve granted out over $100,000 for community improvements projects, ranging from a sound system anyone in the community can use for free for events to historical signage around town.

Tribon was one of the founding board members. “You have to strive to make your community vibrant; it just doesn’t happen on its own,” she said. “A community foundation is one way you can do it. It’s a facilitator to connect donors with projects.”

Harmony Area Community Foundation is one of 27 local community foundations under SMIF’s umbrella. “A community foundation is one marker of a healthy community,” said SMIF President and CEO Tim Penny. “It shows that people are willing to invest in the future. It’s also a great way to leverage SMIF funds.” In total, SMIF has granted over $4.1 million through its community foundations for local projects. In Harmony alone, SMIF has contributed $46,000 to their endowment which will help the foundation carry out projects.

A recent collaboration success story came from SMIF’s annual luncheon, where Tribon connected with a city leader from St. James. St. James had launched an internship program to teach kids about local work opportunities post-high school or college. After relentless convincing, Tribon persuaded the Harmony Area Chamber of Commerce this program could be a win-win-win for the community.

With a $2,000 grant from HACF and a $2,000 matching grant from SMIF, four high schoolers from Harmony got first-hand experience in engineering, legal, marketing and retail sales positions in town. The goal of the student internship program is to raise student awareness about entrepreneurship and employment opportunities in the Harmony area, with the hope that kids will move back after college.

The new historic signs were funded with a $10,000 Community Collaboration grant from SMIF, and more applications keep coming in to HACF. “People are starting to become more aware of us as resource,” said Harmony Mayor and HACF Board Member Steve Donney.

Kathryn Kinneberg is one of HACF’s student interns working at Essence, a restore shop on Harmony’s main street.

Rural Brain Gain in Harmony

Aaron Bishop is one of the Harmony Area Community Foundation’s youngest and most active contributors members. After getting a geology degree from the University of Hawaii – Hilo, he came back to work at his family’s business, Niagara Caves. “With a geology degree, I look at the really long-term picture,” said Bishop.  “If anyone ever comes in with a project, I ask ‘Is this sustainable? Is it going to be good for the local environment?’ I keep a long-term vision because I feel like I’m going to be living in this region for the foreseeable future, so I would like to have it be built up in a way that supports itself.”

With an aging population, Harmony leaders are thinking strategically about how to retain their young families, or make it a place they want to return to when the time comes to raise a family. Donney himself downsized from Rochester to Harmony in 1979 when he bought a local restaurant. “Harmony has the oldest population in Fillmore County and I think Fillmore County has one of the oldest populations in the state,” he said.

The internship program created by the community foundation is one strategy. Another is inviting younger residents to partake in leadership positions. In the 2016 Rural Pulse survey conducted by Blandin Foundation, 28% of people surveyed in SMIF’s region said they hadn’t been asked to serve in a leadership role, but 34% definitely would if asked.

Age diversity is important for HACF board members. “I thought we should have 2 people in their 20s, 2 in their 30s, 2 in their 40s, 2 in their 50s, and so on, plus a couple farmers…now we are kind of heavy on the younger end, which is great – I love it,” said Tribon. “You need those different perspectives because everybody is looking for something different in their community.”

So far, Harmony’s efforts to have their kids return, rather than be a “brain drain” stat, seems to be paying off. Bishop estimates between 30-40% of kids he went to high school with have moved back, whether to farm, take up the family business, or invest in other ways. “One works at the new child care center, and another is a foundation board member, too,” he said.

An added benefit of bringing in younger members is that HACF is also diversifying their donor base. “The thing about giving to the foundation, is it’s a win-win for Harmony because 100% of it goes back to Harmony,” said Tribon. “If you donate to anything else, there are administrative fees. Thank goodness for SMIF.” In addition to providing matching grants, SMIF provides a lot of back-end administrative support for its 27 community foundations to allow the foundations focus on fundraising and grantmaking.

The Roots Run Deep

Harmony Area Community Foundation understands that even when people leave, they never stop calling Harmony home. Donney said when they solicited former Harmony graduates, “I remember getting one check for $1,000 from California, even though none of us knew him directly.”

That deep sense of community is what drew Bishop back. “Harmony is home for me because it’s where my biological family is, but also my community family.” As leaders like Tribon, Donney and Bishop look at the road ahead, they know their biggest challenge is also their biggest strength. “We are a small community,” said Bishop. “We have a limited base, but everyone also knows everyone, so you have a lot more connection.”


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