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Guest Column: The role of foundations during times of crisis

Guest Column by Tim Penny


In times of crises, life as we know it quickly unravels, but we immediately start to pick up the pieces and do our best to navigate new terrain. It helps to have organizations that are already positioned to help pick up those pieces. The current health and economic crisis has highlighted the important role that foundations and other nonprofits can play during a time like this. At Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, our total impact in COVID-19 response efforts in our 20-county region is already nearing $11 million.

Tim Penny

To put this in perspective, SMIF typically invests $5 million each year in the region through our standard programming and grantmaking, which fall under the areas of economic development, early childhood and community vitality. Not only have we largely continued our normal work, but we have become a major partner in recovery efforts in those same areas, tripling the impact we typically have on the region in a normal year.

Since April, we have worked closely with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to funnel relief dollars to our region’s entrepreneurs. We dispersed 50 small business emergency loans from DEED for a total of $1.2 million to restaurants, bars, hair salons and other public accommodations impacted by the emergency shutdown. Most recently we have partnered with DEED once again to verify, administer and distribute more than 900 small business relief grants to southern Minnesota businesses that are dealing with financial hardship for a total of $9 million.

We have also supported food entrepreneurs through our Grow a Farmer Assistance Grants, awarding three organizations a total of $30,000 to support at least 120 farmers in southern Minnesota. They have created a microgrant program to help producers respond to new challenges brought on by the crisis, like building an online presence and implementing new cleaning and sanitizing measures. They have also built handwashing stations to distribute to farmers and are developing marketing campaigns to create more awareness about farmers in the region.

In the early childhood space, we created the emergency child care grant program to provide immediate financial support to licensed child care providers. We were able to award $254,950 in immediate funds to 491 family providers and 34 centers, serving approximately 1,800 children. Most recently we have been awarded funding from the Minnesota Department of Education and the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief to support organizations that provide early care and education wraparound programming for children birth to age 8, more details of which will be made available in late September.

Under our community vitality umbrella, we offered a matching grant to our 30 community foundations to support their localized relief efforts. By leveraging this opportunity, so far 18 community foundations have provided a total of $121,050 to their communities to support their local food shelves, meal programs and other groups that need immediate support. We were also able to shift our small town grant focus to specifically support communities under 10,000 as they recover from the crisis, and anticipate awarding close to $193,000 once the review process is complete.

We have been able to support our region to this extent because of the strength of our partnerships and the generosity of our donors. We are honored to be in a position to help people in our 20-county region during this time of great need. As I have said before, we will get through this by working together.

More information about our COVID-19 response and the partners we work with can be found at smifoundation.org/covid-19. To support our Love Where You Live campaign, which supports our COVID-19 response efforts, visit smifoundation.org/lovewhereyoulive.

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

Tim Penny is the president and CEO of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. Tim represented Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1982 to 1994.