Minnesota’s Philanthropic Network: Seeking the Light

A deep dive into the light and dark of relying on philanthropy, including lists of suggested community-based transformation funds in Minnesota.

Minnesota has a strong philanthropic network. A range from private donors to publicized foundations support collective action at the funding stage. 

Some are independent family institutions. McKnight Foundation was created in 1953 by a founding leader of 3M and invests in areas ranging from climate to education, with about $88 million annually in grants. The Pohlad Family Foundation is focused on homelessness, affordable housing, and racial justice, with funds stemming from the business developed by former banking executive and Twins owner Carl Pohlad and, prior to 2020, had averaged annual giving of about $10 million.

Corporate foundations are among the state’s largest long-term grant-makers. Margaret A. Cargill, Target, and General Mills each have upwards of $100 million, although their annual grant offerings vary. According to GrantDomain, General Mills annually gives out $26 million; Target $9 million; Cargill $7 million. 

Cargill aims at access to nutritious food and healthy eating habits and has invested millions in food and education in North Minneapolis, including funding to Appetite for Change and Urban Ventures. 

EcoLab Foundation focuses on supporting global water issues, including protecting clean water in Minnesota. It is working with Nature Conservancy on an Urban Water Blueprint project that collects data on quality and risks with fresh water.

Medtronic has invested $17 million over five years to improve detection of heart disease and diabetes in underserved populations.

Community foundations share public and private funding. St. Paul & Minnesota Foundation was started in 1940 with a $5,000 gift from Annie Paper, born to Jewish-Lithuanian immigrants, and now has nearly $1.6 billion in assets, according to its website. Together with other donors, it made 8,300 grants in 71 of Minnesota’s 87 counties in 2019 and offers about $58 million annually.

In 2019 alone, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community provided $15 million in donations for education, youth, healthcare, community development, arts, and environmental protection.

Headwaters Foundation for Justice was created in 1984 by a group of donors that wanted people directly experiencing inequities to lead the efforts to make effective change. The Communities First Fund supports Black, Indigenous, and people of color individuals and organizations impacted by pandemic disparities. The Transformation Fund provides protestors and community members with funding related to holding officials accountable around law enforcement and has been offered to organizations involved in racial equity, with seed money from two donors of $2 million. [Find recipients here.]

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Foundations sometimes collaborate to address specific community needs. United Way, Minneapolis Foundation, and St. Paul & Minnesota Foundation are teaming up on criminal justice reform and reconstruction efforts with the Twin Cities Rebuild for the Future Fund. Emergency support for micro- and minority-owned small businesses was distributed this summer in an invitation-only process, funded at $1.3 million for repairs, equipment, technology, building materials, and relocation expenses. Future work will include disrupting the school to prison pipeline, addressing bail disparities and sentencing inequities, and improving funding to re-entry programs. 

The Minnesota Council on Foundations also announced that the Philanthropic Collective to Combat Anti-Blackness & Realize Racial Justice is a coalition of foundations and philanthropic organizations formed in response to the killing of George Floyd and will have $25 million for the Black-Led Movement Fund.


Dark Side to Philanthropy

Some warn, however, that it is dangerous to rely so much on philanthropic organizations to support the basic needs of marginalized communities. On the one hand, non-profits that are deeply enmeshed in neighborhoods are often best poised to serve needs compared to public funding that comes from taxation. On the other hand, if tax structures were equitable, it might reduce the need for philanthropic largess. 

Historically, many women — particularly women of color — do volunteer work around food security and other basic needs that are not compensated or acknowledged, compared to the work of those in many philanthropic organizations.

Naomi Klein, author of  “No Is Not Enough,” indicates that we have been “looking to the billionaire class to solve the problems” that were formerly addressed “with collective action and a strong public sector.” Reducing public sector spending because of taxation limits, for example, reduces our ability to address systemic issues around racial equity, homelessness, climate change, healthcare and education gaps, and agricultural inefficiencies. 

Another concern is that philanthropy tends to get public credit for funding short-term solutions, not long-term ones, and is not accountable to the public for the results. The process also can be market-driven, and not democratic, in determining how funds are spent. Decision makers might be more attuned to funders’ priorities rather than public needs.

Education reform writer Joanne Barkan has described the large, private philanthropic ventures — such as those by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — as problematic in three ways, despite doing good things: “They intervene in public life but aren’t accountable to the public; they are privately governed but publicly subsidized by being tax exempt; and in a country where money translates into political power, they reinforce the problem of plutocracy — the exercise of power derived from wealth.”


Background: The History of Global Philanthropy

Steel industry tycoon Andrew Carnegie set up a founding foundation in 1911, with an endowment to the Carnegie Corporation of $125 million. He also established the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In 1913, John D. Rockefeller set up his foundation after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that his Standard Oil Company was an illegal monopoly and had to be broken up into smaller companies. He became the wealthiest man in the world, and the foundation saved him income and inheritance taxes.

As taxation became a stronger way of supporting public needs through government, more foundations were created to shelter the wealth in the hands of individuals like W.K. Kellogg and Henry Ford. 

In an 80-page working paper titled “Philanthropic Power and Development: Who shapes the agenda?,” published by a German-based consortium, these questions were raised: 

  • Do wealthy philanthropists and their foundations have undue influence over agenda setting, sidelining the role of governments? 
  • What is the impact of framing the problems and defining development solutions by applying the business logic of profit-making institutions to philanthropic activities, for instance by results-based management or the focus on technological quick-win solutions in the sectors of health and agriculture? 
  • Can the power be challenged of foundations to influence countries to accept isolated solutions, which are poorly coordinated, and hinder comprehensive development strategies? 
  • Does funding become increasingly privatized and dependent on voluntary and ultimately unpredictable financing through benevolent individuals and private philanthropic foundations? 
  • What instruments should be put in place to guarantee that philanthropic foundations act in an open and transparent manner and can be hold accountable for their actions?

Another concern is that spending becomes concentrated on certain areas while others remain underfunded. According to 2012 data, the largest 1,000 U.S. foundations spent 37 percent of its international grants on projects in the health sector, 11 percent on environment projects, and 4 percent on projects in the field of human rights.


Action = Change

These funds are cited by the Minnesota Council on Foundations as strong community-based opportunities: 

Philanthropic Collective to Combat Anti-Blackness & Realize Racial Justice Fund

Communities First Fund

Northside Funders Group

Extensive list of community resources for donations, mental health, arts, construction, and more

Pandemic-related resources that needs support

See our Action = Change story on helping unsheltered veterans


Local Milkweed Books compiled a list of justice-oriented organizations its staff supported.

  • Reclaim the Block: A Minneapolis-based organization that works with council members to move money from the police department into other areas of the city’s budget, and organizes around policies that strengthen community-led safety initiatives. 
  • Voices for Racial Justice: Focusing on healing, education, and leadership for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in Minnesota, this organization centers communities of color in policy proposals, state-wide census accuracy efforts, and criminal justice reform. 
  • Black Visions Collective: Centering their work in healing and transformative justice principles, Black Visions Collective organizes to shape a political home for Black people across Minnesota.
  • Pimento Jamaican Kitchen Relief Services: This restaurant, located in the Whittier neighborhood of Minneapolis, has been coordinating donation drop-off and delivery, and recently launched a community Summit on Police Homicide. 
  • Juxtaposition Arts: Donations support emerging artists and designers and helps Juxtaposition Arts offer free, college-level arts programming for young people in North Minneapolis — the neighborhood where the largest population of Black residents live and own businesses (a few blocks from Minnesota Women’s Press). 
  • Minnesota Healing Justice Network: A group of BIPOC health and wellness providers including doulas, bodyworkers, yoga instructors, herbalists, mental health practitioners, and physical therapists make up this organization. Funding helps members stay afloat so they can continue long-term, culturally congruent healthcare and advocacy for health equity. 
  • Black Table Arts: Offering professional development for institutions centered in education and the arts, Black Table Arts works with artists all over the state of Minnesota to collaborate on speaking engagements, performances, and writing workshops. Their annual Because Black Life Conference hosts hundreds of Black folks for a day of conversation, healing, and joy. 
  • Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop: Through high-quality creative writing classes for incarcerated men and women, a one-to-one mail mentor program, and related programming, this organization fosters literary community in Minnesota’s state prisons. 
  • Migizi: Founded in 1977, Migizi is a multimedia training organization for Native youth aimed at providing professional storytelling skills, enhancing self-esteem, and improving academic performance. Their building was burned down, and all funds will support their rebuild. 
  • Northside Businesses: West Broadway Business and Area Coalition is raising money with the Northside Funders Group to rebuild and support Northside businesses that have been impacted by COVID-19 and the recent uprising. 
  • Lake Street Council: One hundred percent of the funds will help rebuild Lake Street, starting with direct support to small businesses and nonprofits to help rebuild storefronts and reopen businesses. 
  • Du Nord Riot Recovery Fund: Du Nord is a Black-owned distillery in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis that experienced property damage. They are raising money to not only support their rebuild, but to support the rebuilds of neighboring Black- and Brown-owned businesses. 

Related Resources

Minnesota’s top-giving foundations

Visual Q&A: Collective Action

The Patriot Act show on philanthropy:

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