The Making of an Oral History Project

Monday, April 18, 2016

By Susan Stehling

The Minnesota Council on Foundations is involved in a multi-year oral history project supported by funding from Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Through a series of interviews by historians, the project will document the role and contributions of philanthropy in Minnesota between 1969 and 2013. The project will continue at least through 2016.

It is sometimes said that you can’t change the past. But you can certainly learn from it to change the future. With that spirit, here are thoughts shared by grantmakers with years of knowledge and wisdom. These are their words – sometimes edited for clarity and conciseness – about three areas that continue to be discussed by grantmakers today.

Greater Good

Interviewees were asked what they thought caused Minnesota’s elevated sense of community. Their answers reflect a deep belief in the greater good and a feeling of responsibility that reaches far beyond themselves and their families.

Richard McFarland, long-time member of the Twin Cities financial and philanthropic communities, talked about how he got his start in nonprofit work.

Early in his career, he received a promotion from Wheelock Whitney, then president of J.M. Dain & Company, who said, “With the title comes responsibility. You haven’t done a thing in this community for 14 years. I know you’ve been traveling a lot and so forth, but you have done nothing. So, I want you to pick two nonprofits that you’re going to be involved with.”

McFarland took on roles at Greater Twin Cities United Way and Junior Achievement and never looked back. Eventually he served as a trustee of Bush Foundation, Greater Twin Cities United Way, The McKnight Foundation, The Minneapolis Foundation, RBC Dain Rauscher Foundation and others. Along the way, he too began to advocate for the importance of community involvement.

“I became president of the company in 1972,” continues McFarland. “For the next 25 years, I would meet with our training classes all over the country. The last speech I would give to the trainees was the Wheelock Whitney speech, ‘I expect you to be involved in your communities. I don’t care if it’s Dubuque or Denver or Seattle, but being involved is part of who we are as a company.’ I think that effort paid off. We had people involved in their communities in every single one of our 50 offices.”

“In Minnesota, you find family after family – yes, they’re successful in business, but they’re also busy building the community,” says Malcolm McDonald, long-time member of St. Paul’s financial and philanthropic communities. “There is a long reach in our state of families wanting to do what is good for the state of Minnesota.”

McFarland believes Minnesota businessman John S. Pillsbury captures the idea with this thought: No self-respecting citizen could neglect the needs of his community, any more than he could the needs of his family. Those with more gave more as a matter of course [and] democracy’s duties were to be shared by all. That is the very foundation of Minnesota greatness.

Mary Pickard, longtime president of the Travelers Foundation, concurs. “The argument always was, and our executive team believed this, that what benefits the community is going to benefit the shareholder. The community is one of our stakeholders, our employees live in this community and our businesses were built in this community, so we need to do our part to contribute to the quality of life here.”

Do executives today get and give this message as strongly as they once did? Pickard believes the idea needs continual reinforcement. “I do think that Minnesota has a culture of giving and community engagement that we shouldn’t take for granted and that we should acknowledge and cultivate even more,” she says. “Leaders at all levels, from the grass roots to the governor, need to be nurtured because that’s how we’ll find solutions to all the things that need to be dealt with.”

Community and Continuity

Philanthropists also talked about the necessity of local people finding solutions to local problems and a belief in sticking around for the long haul.

“What’s really important about McKnight’s approach [when setting up the six Initiative Foundations], is they knew local people were the key to the solution,” says Kathy Gaalswyk, president of the Initiative Foundation since 1986. “They know the problems. They’re going to have the best ideas about finding the solutions, and ultimately they will be the ones to carry out the work and bring about positive change.”

Cynthia Gehrig, president of The Jerome Foundation from 1976 to 2013, discussed how small changes over time ensured the board eventually reflected the community. “When I came to The Jerome Foundation, there were no women on the board,” she says. “First the fight was gender. Then the fight was race and then about the same time, the fight became class. You get this incremental change and you keep going.

“Our nominating committee also asked staff to go into the field and get suggestions from our grantees of people they thought would be great board members – the kind of people that they would like to see reviewing their proposals,” adds Gehrig.

“It became clear that with communication, honesty and integrity, we could achieve our aim,” says Reatha Clark King, president and executive director of the General Mills Foundation from 1988 to 2003, when speaking about north Minneapolis’ Hawthorne Huddle. “But you have got to stay at the table. Our stick-to-it-iveness and commitment to staying there caused others to also stay and do more.”

Pickard, now principal advisor at Arbor Philanthropy acknowledges a challenge. “I see more young people wanting to be involved with their family’s philanthropy, which is good, but sometimes there is a dark side,” she says. “People with money sometimes think they have solutions that they don’t necessarily have. They might have a solution, but it might not work. There’s a tendency to feel like, ‘I ran a company, so I can really help here,’ but the skills aren’t necessarily transferrable or maybe it’s a different cultural context.”

Be Bold!

There was also discussion about the necessity, then and now, of families, grantmakers and MCF to think boldly.

“In many ways, family philanthropists can take more risks, because they don’t have a lot of constituencies to worry about,” says Pickard. “They don’t have unhappy customers or people boycotting their stores. They’re able to declare their values pretty openly and clearly, and those values can include religious values.”

“I knew first-hand what people in the community were complaining about. We were not diverse enough through and through,” says Clark King. “I was asked to chair MCF’s strategic planning committee in 1990, and we decided we were going to put some bold imperatives in place. We were going to encourage diversity in all foundations, and request that foundations and especially MCF members, consider diversity and inclusiveness in every way – programming, grantmaking, staffing.”

“This [Initiative Foundation] model doesn’t exist anywhere else in the country or even the world that we know of,” says Gaalswyk. “Early on we realized that writing checks wasn’t enough – that we needed to provide other kinds of supports to build the capacity of local people. We obtained a special I.R.S. ruling allowing the Initiative Foundations to make loans. As far as we know, we’re the only foundations in the country that got that ruling.”

In 1976 Bush Foundation hosted its first public meeting at the St. Paul YWCA auditorium. At the time, this was a groundbreaking strategy and definitely not a normal process for a foundation. “We outlined the foundation’s grantmaking, and invited questions and suggestions from the more than 400 people present,” says Humphrey Doermann, executive director, Bush Foundation, 1971 to 1997.

And an insight on why philanthropy sometimes lacks boldness: “I think that’s part of the problem with philanthropy,” explains Pickard. “Sometimes we don’t really want to take the risks that are necessary to create change because generally those of us who are making the decisions about what to do are part of the establishment.”

Part of the Spring 2016 Giving Forum