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Will complex social problems force Minnesota nonprofits to change?

Key strategies could change the dynamic of the funder-grantee relationship and allow nonprofit organizations to be more effective in carrying out their missions.

Minnesota Philanthropy Partners has worked closely with the City of St. Paul to ensure that people of all income levels are served by the Central Corridor light-rail project.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

Soul-searching can be a painful and scary endeavor, but leaders of Minnesota’s nonprofit community took a hard look at how they operate during a recent gathering in Golden Valley.

The impetus for the introspective session was the Independent Sector, which is a national network for nonprofits, foundations and corporate funders.

Its president and CEO, Diana Aviv, is on a road tour around the United States, and she’s asking what nonprofits and their funders can do to get better results when tackling issues of poverty and other social issues. “We are not solving the big problems of our times,” Aviv candidly said to a group of nearly 100 Minnesotans who convened on May 27.

A Wall Street Journal story published June 6 reinforced Aviv’s message with disturbing statistics. In 1966, shortly after President Lyndon Johnson ignited the War on Poverty, the rate of Americans living in poverty was 14.7 percent, the Journal reported. By 2013, the rate stood at 14.5 percent. That’s hardly moving the needle toward major change.

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But the Journal story detailed some new approaches for attacking poverty — some based on research by economists and psychologists — that are showing promising progress. These techniques are helping some low-income people to gain an economic foothold.

While the breadth of Minnesota’s nonprofit sector and the large asset base of Minnesota foundations are the envy of many states, several foundation and nonprofit leaders want to shake up the status quo; they vocalized that desire at the Independent Sector gathering.

Several key strategies emerged that would change the dynamic of the funder-grantee relationship and could allow nonprofit organizations to be more effective in carrying out their missions.

Taking more risks: Sandy Vargas, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation, urged attendees to leave their “comfort zones.” For foundations, this could mean changing their perspectives on how they evaluate nonprofits. It could translate into using a different lens from which to understand new approaches from grant applicants. It could mean demonstrating greater flexibility and support for immigrant-led organizations and for nonprofits primarily serving communities of color. Trista Harris, president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations, said people in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors should share their stories of failure so others could learn from them.

Liz Fedor

Supporting long-term funding: One of the greatest challenges faced by the nonprofit sector in the Twin Cities is the educational achievement gap between whites and students of color in urban schools. Substantial progress cannot be made overnight on this issue, which graphically illustrates why funders need to make investments over the long haul to gain traction in addressing complex social problems. Nonprofit executive directors spend an incredible amount of time shoehorning their work to fit into funder guidelines. They also are constantly striving to piece together grants of different durations to raise the money they need to retain talented staff. High turnover among qualified staff merely hurts the people the nonprofits exist to serve. Long-term funding relationships could yield better results for all stakeholders.

Forging new partnerships: Aviv emphasized the importance of the nonprofit sector forging greater ties with government and business to address some of society’s biggest challenges. Minnesota Philanthropy Partners, which includes the 75-year-old St. Paul Foundation, has demonstrated the value of Aviv’s philosophy. In a Sunday, June 7 editorial, the St. Paul Pioneer Press highlighted how Minnesota Philanthropy Partners has worked closely with the City of St. Paul to ensure that people of all income levels are served by the Central Corridor light-rail project. It also has joined with the business community to tackle other big issues, and Minnesota Philanthropy Partners has served as an honest broker in helping community factions find common ground. Some key Minnesota corporations are stepping forward to address climate change and hunger. It’s possible to shift the civic terrain and create more opportunities for nonprofits, business and government to leverage their resources and work together.

Forming broad coalitions: In the prelude to a 2015 special legislative session, Gov. Mark Dayton and House Speaker Kurt Daudt disagreed about how much money to spend on early childhood education. But they don’t dispute the value of low-income children having access to high-quality child care and early-learning options. Over many years, everyone from Art Rolnick, formerly of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, to the Start Early Funders Coalition has been making the case for the power of early childhood education to enable children from all backgrounds to succeed in school. Coalitions can be tough to form and sustain, but they are critical elements for targeting resources and political capital that are vital to making a difference on complex social problems.

Liz Fedor is an editor at Twin Cities Business magazine and previously served as a program officer for two Minnesota-based foundations.  


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