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Blandin Foundation trustees check in with Itasca residents, choose new board leader

GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. – At their September quarterly meeting, Blandin Foundation trustees made key decisions related to grants, board governance and finance.  As it was their extended fall meeting, trustees also took extra time to dive deep into the past, present and future of the communities of the Itasca area.


Trustees ratified education grants to 375 local students who have headed to post-secondary educations this fall armed with Blandin Foundation needs-based scholarships of up to $4,000 each.  Trustees also approved a target for 2016-17 local education grants of $950,000 for the 2016-17 school year.  To date, more than $23 million has been awarded to Itasca County area students in Blandin Foundation scholarships.

Trustees awarded an additional 68 grants totaling $705,888 that help strengthen rural Minnesota communities, including 24 grants of varying sizes totaling $118,625 to Itasca area organizations.

Great Plains Institute for Sustainable Development, a nonprofit, has been awarded $195,000 over three years to support the Bioeconomy Coalition of Minnesota to grow rural economies in Minnesota through development of commercial-scale advanced biofuels, renewable chemicals and biomass thermal energy production.  With the passing in 2015 of state legislation and production incentives, Minnesota has a 10-year window of opportunity to firmly establish itself as the bioeconomy leader in the U.S. and the world.  This coalition is poised to help Minnesota’s forest and other bioeconomy efforts to take root, especially in northern Minnesota.

Most of the grants approved this quarter are smaller amounts, yet offer significant impact.  For example, Itasca Community College’s (ICC) shared text project will benefit from a $6,000 grant to cover speaker and panelist expenses for student, staff and community members in Itasca County. This year’s selection, The Smartest Kids in the Room, follows three American students as they experience education in three top-scoring countries on assessments given to 15-year-olds.  ICC is working with the Grand Rapids Area Library, K-12 partners, and local education champions to spur community conversations about student engagement and motivation, achievement gaps, and community support for students.

An equally collaborative project, First Call for Help 2-1-1 will create, with the help of a $4,800 grant, a common entry point system for all who are homeless or at risk of being homeless and are requesting help from any Itasca County housing agency. The project, designed by all housing agencies in Itasca County, will utilize a shared database to intake, screen and place current or potential clients based on their needs and availability. This will minimize duplicated services and improve housing staff efficiency.

Complete lists of Blandin Foundation grants since the first for Blandin Beach in 1943 to today can be found at the Foundation’s website, along with application details and deadlines.  At least 60 percent of all Blandin grants paid, on a six-year rolling average basis, is awarded in the Itasca area.  With grants approved this week, that average currently is 75%, again exceeding the foundation’s minimum commitment.

Leadership and Finance

On the governance front, trustees chose Itasca area resident Brian Nicklason to replace outgoing chairman Dr. Mike Johnson.  Nicklason, born and raised in Remer and an Itasca area businessman, has been elected by the board to lead it over a three-year term beginning January 2016.  He has been a trustee for Blandin Foundation since 2007 and currently chairs its Investment Committee.

“It has been a privilege to serve as the chair of the board of trustees for the last four years,” said Johnson. “This change in leadership is exciting for the Foundation as Brian represents a deep loyalty to the entire Itasca area and knows the opportunities and challenges ahead. He is a respected community leader who will bring his expertise to a board that is dedicated to the mission of the foundation.”

As stewards of foundation resources, trustees also took a detailed look at how best to finance two significant pieces of debt.  With interest rates low and the desire to sustain grantmaking levels, trustees looked at the possibility of financing $2.5 million in building renovations as well as refinancing municipal bonds originally issued in support of the Grand Itasca Hospital in 2004.

After looking at a variety of options, trustees chose to proceed with financing through a consortium of local banks.

“We appreciate very much the trust that community banks of the Itasca area have in Blandin Foundation, and look forward to even deeper partnerships with each of them,” said Kathy Annette, president and CEO.  “Even better, financing at home keeps more resources here for the many advances under way and on the horizon in the Itasca area.”


As Blandin Foundation approaches its 75th anniversary in 2016 and as trustees take a strategic look ahead, a wide range of community residents from throughout Itasca County were invited to update the board on how they are doing.

More than 30 community members shared with trustees and each other what they saw as their communities’ assets and challenges.  The long lists of assets ranged from a strong volunteer and donor base to natural amenities and community leadership.  Challenges shared with trustees include concerns with poverty, adult care for youth, diversity and inclusion, and replacing many well-paid jobs of the past that have been lost.

“This area is amazingly generous in the honesty and time shared with Blandin Foundation,” said Kathy Annette.  “Our trustees wanted to hear, first-hand, what is happening today in the Itasca area.  We are thankful for the rich and detailed insights in this week’s conversation, and intend to put them to good use as we understand what is, and imagine what could be in the future.”

Also on the docket for trustees at this meeting were a tour of Grace House, a look back at the Foundation’s history, and a look at the future of place-based philanthropy with national expert Jeff Yost, director of the Nebraska Community Foundation.


Photo caption: Itasca area residents shared insights on community assets and challenges at a community conversation hosted by Blandin Foundation trustees during their annual fall retreat. Themes included strong community leadership and natural resources, and challenges including domestic abuse and poverty.

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