Guest Column: Moving the needle in southern Minnesota

Published 8:13 pm Monday, November 5, 2018

Guest Column by Tim Penny

Tim Penny


Autumn is one of my favorite times of year — not just because of the beautiful colors, but because it means it’s time for our annual luncheon. At Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, this luncheon is an opportunity for more than 200 of our partners to come together from across our 20-county region to share successes and look to the future.

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At this year’s luncheon we heard from several of our repeat program recipients that have been moving the needle on issues in southern Minnesota that touch our three areas: early childhood, economic development and community vitality.

We heard from Dan Christianson, chairman and CEO of F&M Community Bank in Preston, who was instrumental in starting the Preston Area Community Foundation. The community foundation has been moving the needle on rural philanthropy since 1997 by providing an opportunity for locals to invest in the town’s future. PACF has funded projects in the town of 1,305 from murals and baseball diamond improvements, to early childhood initiatives and historic site renovations. PACF is one of 28 community foundations administered by SMIF’s affiliate fund program that is capturing the transfer of wealth in our region. Our affiliate funds have distributed an impressive $4.6 million through grants in their communities.

We also heard from Fatima Said, the executive director from Project FINE, a Winona-based nonprofit that helps newcomers integrate into life in Minnesota. A SMIF grant recipient since 1997, Project FINE has been moving the needle on economic prosperity for immigrants and refugees in the Winona area. Project FINE has been instrumental in supporting entrepreneurs overcome language and cultural barriers to create pathways for success.

Finally, we heard from Cheryl Smythe, director of educational services, and Jessica Kittleson, S.M.A.R.T. mentor and classroom teacher, from A Chance to Grow. ACTG is a nonprofit that has been moving the needle on school readiness in our region since receiving their first SMIF grant in 2013. They specialize in training teachers in a program called Stimulating Maturity through Accelerated Readiness Training, or S.M.A.R.T., which is a movement-based curriculum that has proved effective at preparing children for reading, writing and more. So far, they have trained 361 teachers in 88 early childhood programs on how to implement S.M.A.R.T. in classrooms across southern Minnesota.

It is always sad to say goodbye to everyone at the end of this celebration, and this year we announced that this would be our last annual luncheon for a while. Fortunately, this event is just taking a new form, and we will have more opportunities to gather again soon. Next year we will host four community resource events across our region: at the Cannon River Winery in Cannon Falls (April 23), Four Daughters Winery in Spring Valley (April 25), Chankaska Winery in Kasota (April 30) and the Red Rock Center for the Arts in Fairmont (May 2). We look forward to connecting with new and old friends at these events, while sharing the many opportunities we have to offer this region.

Change doesn’t happen overnight, but with the right resources, it can happen faster than one might think. These partners, and many others, have utilized SMIF resources time and again to improve the lives of southern Minnesotans and the future of our region. More information about how we have been moving the needle on important issues, along with detailed versions of the Preston and S.M.A.R.T. stories, is available in our 2018 annual report and online at

As always, I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at or 507-455-3215.

Tim Penny is the president and CEO of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.