Community Foundations Do a Lot of Things -- And We Never Do Them Alone

By Eric Jolly and R.T. Rybak

What are community foundations doing to help build community?

The Saint Paul & Minnesota Community Foundations hosts a recent Community Impact gathering to help break barriers between grantmakers and grantees.

The Saint Paul & Minnesota Community Foundations hosts a recent Community Impact gathering to help break barriers between grantmakers and grantees.

That was the question posed by a commentary piece published recently in one of our local newspapers — but it’s not a foreign question to us, since it’s one we explore every day as leaders of two of the largest community foundations in our region.

Community foundations play an important and unique role. We bring together people from all walks of life to tackle problems and seize opportunities. We invest in the people and organizations who work to make our communities better for everyone. We inspire generosity so future generations can continue to make our communities stronger long after we’re gone.

Community foundations do a lot of things—and we never do them alone.

We work with communities, nonprofits, civic institutions and the private sector to identify pressing needs and create lasting solutions. Last month, the St. Paul & Minnesota Community Foundations convened more than 200 members of the nonprofit community to bring transparency to grantmaking practices and break down perceived barriers between grantmakers and grantees. 

We work together, and with other philanthropic institutions, to combine our resources and respond to an urgent need or prevent a potential crisis. When the threat of mass deportation intensified dramatically last year, we worked with others to create Solidarity MN, an initiative that raised $800,000 to support organizations that serve the needs and protect the rights immigrants and their families in our communities.

We create spaces where people can connect, share, listen, understand and appreciate the different experiences and perspectives within our communities. Last week, just days after a young African American man was shot and killed by two Minneapolis police officers, The Minneapolis Foundation hosted an event where Philando Castile’s mother, Valerie Castile, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, and others shared their perspectives on community, healing and hope. 

Over the past several years, community foundations — including the ones we are honored to lead — have seen a tremendous increase in contributions. An analysis of 269 community foundations by the Columbus Survey found that the total annual contributions from the donors increased by $1 billion, between 2016 and 2017.  

More importantly, the same analysis also found that community foundations and their donors awarded $8.3 billion in grants in 2017, an increase of $1.1 billion over the previous year. And we are proud that last year our foundations awarded nearly $170 million in grants to thousands of nonprofit organizations. 

Much of the growth in both gifts to and grants from community foundations is due to the increased popularity of donor-advised funds. Today, individuals and families who want to open a donor-advised fund have more options than ever before. Over the past several years, many national for-profit financial institutions have established non-profit subsidiaries that offer donor-advised funds to their clients, often with administrative fees that much lower than what you find at a community foundation. 

So why would someone open a fund with at a community foundation when they could open one for less at a big financial institution? 

We believe it is because people want to work with an organization that is equally committed to their community. Because they trust our staff to provide valuable advice that is informed by experience, expertise and a strong connection to the community. Because they see us bring people together to make our communities places where everyone can thrive. Because they are inspired by the people and organizations we support and want to help them make a bigger impact in the community. 

People choose community foundations because we help build community. But we can only be effective if we have the trust of the communities we serve. We earn that trust by being present in our communities, in big ways and small. By engaging with nonprofit organizations, policymakers, donors and community members. By pushing ourselves to be better. And by always asking ourselves, and inspiring others to ask themselves: What more can we do to help build community?

Dr. Eric Jolly is president and CEO of the St. Paul & Minnesota Community Foundations. 
R.T. Rybak is president and CEO of The Minneapolis Foundation.