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Blandin Foundation CEO Addresses Central Minnesota Community Foundations

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Blandin Foundation’s President and CEO Dr. Kathleen Annette spoke to central Minnesota community foundation board members, volunteers and leaders at the first-ever Community Giving Day this week. As place-based foundations, community foundations can see “whole communities,”  positioning them as unique and important in Minnesota’s philanthropic landscape. Dr. Annette shared with attendees five lessons learned working for more than 75 years in rural Minnesota communities. Her full speech is below.



It’s an exciting day!  The first-ever Community Giving Day.  Congratulations on making this happen.  Congratulations on the leadership I see in this room.

And thank you for inviting me to a part of our state that is quite dear to me.  My best friend from college was from Willmar.  My first bosses live just down the road in Belgrade…Gene and Ardis Jensen, who owned the store at Red Lake where I was stock girl, cashier, and pumped gas.

Even here at BugBee Hive Resort I am connected—I was classmates at UMD with owner Paul Bugbee and his twin brother Peter.  I remember them running for president of the student body….they were quite the leaders.

I have had many opportunities to travel Minnesota, to hear directly from residents of their hope and dreams, ambitions and challenges.  To see their communities through their eyes.  Because place matters.

And as place-rooted foundations, you matter.  You find ways for your communities to do together what is not always possible to do alone.

Again, congratulations for making this day happen.  And thank you for the many ways – large and small—that you give, and ways you make it possible for others to give and to have greater impact together.

75 years ago, Charles Blandin had a similar impulse.  He had been publisher of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and ultimately owner of a paper mill in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.  He also had left home to make his way in the world – at age 12 – with absolutely nothing.

Charles Blandin could see how powerful a healthy community could be, so he planned for all of his wealth to go for what he described as the “betterment of society” and for the community.

Mr. Blandin’s impulse to give has had some pretty important impacts.

So far, Blandin Foundation has worked with 209 rural communities around issues of broadband access and use, provided grants in 5400 communities, and there are Blandin-trained community leaders in nearly every rural Minnesota community.

Today, Blandin Foundation is one of only a handful of private foundations in the country focused entirely on rural communities.  Like your organizations, our donor had a strong sense of place and community.

Philanthropy’s presence outside of metro areas is, unfortunately, pretty sparse.  Only a small fraction of private philanthropy, in particular, makes its way to smaller and rural places.  On a per-capita basis, well below giving in other areas.  This is one of the reasons that Minnesota’s network of community foundations and funds is so important—you are important.

I can tell you that Blandin Foundation long ago recognized that we could never fund with money all of the amazing, well-deserved work going on in rural Minnesota.

So we began to think more systemically—how best to place investments so that they could have the broadest, long-term impacts.

We try to be strategic, and we also work to be responsive.  We don’t believe that we have all the answers and we actively listen.  We also challenged ourselves to think about what assets—beyond financial—we had to share.  We recognized that our voice, our reputation, our relationships, our networks were ways to extend the impact of Mr. Blandin’s legacy.

30 years ago, we also saw the need and opportunity to support communities through an investment in community leadership.  That was the birth of the Blandin Community Leadership Program.  It’s unusual for a private foundation to operate a program like this.

Are there any BCLP or BRCLP alums in the room today?

We also saw, many years ago, the opportunity to put to work our voice, our relationships, our reputation.  We began to engage on public policy issues–such as broadband and early childhood development—that are so critical to the health of rural communities.  Also unusual.

So in the spirit of the day, I ask you… what are assets you may not yet have tapped to fuel your mission?

One thing, for sure, is that the knowledge you have about your community is an asset.  Community foundations can see WHOLE COMMUNITIES in ways that individual organizations may not.  I hope you see that as an asset, nurture it, and share it.

Again, what are all those assets—even beyond money—in your ledger?  What’s in your tool kit?

I love the current State Farm commercials that go, “We’ve learned a thing or two, because we’ve seen a thing or two.”  Have you seen those?

Over all these years, there is a thing or two that Blandin Foundation has learned.  In the spirit of sharing assets, I thought I would share 5 of these lessons learned with you today.

Lesson Number One:  The healthier the community, the more its residents are able to solve problems and create new trajectories.

In Blandin Foundation’s experience, community “health” can be understood and assessed through 9 lenses, or dimensions.  While they are distinct, these dimensions are inter-related.   

Safety and Security – Community Leadership – Economic Opportunity – Spirituality and Wellness – Life-Long Learning – Inclusion – Recreational & Artistic Opportunity – Environmental Stewardship – Infrastructure & Services

How healthy is rural overall?  In a recent survey of rural Minnesotans, our Rural Pulse, for the first time we specifically at the results through the lens of the 9 Dimensions.  Here are a few highlights…

It is the balance of all these dimensions that leads to a healthy community.   And a healthy community is much more able to create and sustain positive change.  And as organizations that can see and tend to the whole community, we can help our communities see themselves, see where we might be out of balance.

The second lesson I’d like to share with you is that Change can happen from anywhere.

Especially today, a leader does not need the power of position to make things happen for their community. Anyone can frame issues, build social capital and mobilize resources.  In fact, one of the hallmarks of healthy communities is that engagement and power are widely distributed with multiple stakeholders.

I lived most of my adult life in Bemidji.  A physician with Indian Health Service, I chose to live in Bemidji; I was asked to move all over the country, but I refused to leave.  It was home.

One day, I was making a run for groceries after work like everybody else.  But I wasn’t like everybody else.  I was followed in the store by its security staff.  I was grilled at checkout.  I was Native American, and–in this grocery store–that alone meant I could not be trusted.

Ironically, it was the owner of the store who led change.

I would never have guessed that this man would be this kind of leader.  Again, change can happen from anywhere.  Change in Bemidji has happened from everywhere – for years.

Closely related to that is lesson #3: Leadership is an unlimited resource.

Interestingly, leadership is even more needed in rural communities than in larger cities.

I’ll bet you know Ben Winchester.  As part of University of Minnesota Extension’s Center for Community Vitality, Ben has been measuring rural leadership.  He will remind you that, on a per-capita basis, rural communities need more leaders to get things done.

So, how is rural doing on attracting and developing community leaders?

The hard truth is, not all communities put their people assets to work.

Our Rural Pulse survey found that 26% of rural respondents had never been invited to play a leadership role.

And only 41% of rural residents say they had recently served in a community leadership role.

I know that, as community foundations, you have a vested interest in a community’s ability to get things done.

So, a question for you…. Where do you have the opportunity to reach out and invite someone into a role of leadership, someone who just needs to hear, “You are the leader we have been waiting for?”

Before moving to Bemidji, I grew up on the Red Lake Reservation.

As a girl, I was given the name “Anna KOO ba day” by an Anishinaabe elder in my community.  Some girls are given names that mean “beautiful flower” or “rising sun.” But not me.  My Indian name means “to tie to together.”  From the day I was named, I was invited to be a leader.  Not just any kind of leader, but one who ties together—what an honor.  What a challenge!

And as someone whose name means “to tie together,” I especially love Leadership Lesson #4:

Sustainable community action is anchored in the quality and diversity of its connections.

By investing in a broader set of relationships for you, your organizations, and helping your communities do the same, community action – progress – will stick better.

You and your organizations can be the ones to actively build new relationships, especially across cultures.  You are the ones who can can stay curious, take risks and reach out.

Finally – lesson number five:

In order for a community to change, it has to have hope.

Hope is believing that a different future is possible, for ourselves, our people, our communities.  Hope is being able to imagine what that future might be.  Wise leaders know that creating a shared vision for the future, a vision arising from and embraced by the community, is the engine that powers change.  When people have hope, they can accomplish amazing things and better overcome difficult things.

You are out in your communities, working to make them even better places to live and work every day, so you already know this, but it bears repeating: nothing truly worthwhile has ever been easy.  There’s a lot of hard work ahead.

I hope that these lessons spur some ideas for you.  Again…

  1. It takes a healthy community to move forward.
  2. Change can happen from anywhere.
  3. Leadership is an unlimited resource.
  4. Quality and diverse connections sustain progress.
  5. Hope leads to change.

When people arrive at our leadership training retreats, we tell them, “YOU are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.”  I remember how I felt when they said it to me.  What a wonderful and awesome sense of challenge there comes with hearing it.

You are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.”

Invest in your people.  Strong community leaders frame issues, build social capital and mobilize resources.  They know that they have to do it themselves, and they can’t do it alone.

Know that complex community issues still come down to local leadership, and that it’s possible to move a community and change a system.  A great example is broadband—very complex.

Assess your connections.   Encourage those you serve to do the same.  Relationships matter.  How healthy are your relationships?  How diverse are they?  With whom are you connected?  To whom aren’t you connected?

Reach out and bring differences into your midst.  To be honest, you may need to ask others to help you see beyond your own reality.  I know that Blandin Foundation did.

Right now, we have one of the most diverse boards of trustees I am aware of.  Racially, politically, age, lifestyle, economic status—we have been extremely intentional.  And it makes us stronger.

And, it’s a journey.

Finally, every once in a while, stand still.  For your own sake, as well as the community’s.  Know that what you need is there.  Good change is possible.

Over and over, I see that that vibrant, resilient communities are built through hard work – the hard work of leadership, of genuine inclusion, of reaching across boundaries and building lasting connections.

That’s the fertile soil from which resilient, vibrant rural communities grow.

And you are a big part of this.

I believe that we all are in the hope business.

Thank you.   Miigwetch.

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