Grateful for much in SMIF’s 35th year

Published 8:45 pm Thursday, December 23, 2021

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Guest column by Tim Penny

With the new year just days away, I have been taking some time to reflect on this past year. It was a year that, although challenging for many, filled me with hope and inspiration for the future of southern Minnesota. It was also a year during which we celebrated an important milestone here at Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF): 35 years of investing in our 20-county region.

Tim Penny

It is impossible to encapsulate everything that I was grateful for in 2021, but this top 10 list is a start (in no particular order):

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1. Early childhood professionals. Child care providers and educators have continued to support the young children of our region under extremely difficult conditions. The early childhood trainings we organized have supported hundreds of individuals with continuing education opportunities that are free and close to home. We were also able to provide direct technical assistance to child care business owners, increasing the number of child care slots in the region.

2. Entrepreneurs. Like early childhood professionals, entrepreneurs, including our foundation’s loan clients, continue to navigate the new world that has been brought on by the pandemic. I have been energized by the innovative spirit of local business owners who attended our business trainings and the Entrepreneurial Bridge event. It was also a highlight of mine to meet with local food entrepreneurs at the annual FEAST! Local Foods Marketplace, which was recently held in Rochester.

3. Our community foundations. The 30 community foundations under SMIF’s umbrella continue to provide grants and volunteers to grow initiatives in their communities. Some of the projects they have funded over the past year include a summer reading program, downtown events, rural ambulance services and food shelf support.

4. Our AmeriCorps members. Our AmeriCorps LEAP Initiative members worked one-on-one with young children on developing social and emotional development skills to prepare for kindergarten success. Our VISTA members, who help increase economic prosperity of diverse groups in our region, worked on local food projects and initiatives to create more welcoming communities. I am inspired every day by our members who dedicate themselves to serving our region.

5. Our program participants. We were excited to welcome a new cohort to our Prosperity Initiative program which offers training and coaching to entrepreneurs who identify as Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). We also continued our work with our Rural Entrepreneurial Venture (REV) program which helps small towns create more vibrant economies by finding and supporting local entrepreneurs.

6. Our grant recipients. Through our various grants, we have been able to support projects ranging from revitalizing downtown spaces to providing critical funding for services that support young children. We also awarded 23,622 children’s books to 47 organizations through our Early Literacy Grant program (and many more books through other programs) and a record 554 gallons of paint for community projects.

7. Our partners. Every day we live our tagline, “collaborating for regional vitality,” through the partnerships that have been forged and leveraged to maximize SMIF’s impact. From book and paint donations to collaborations on trainings, programs and grants, we simply could not do the work we do without our many partners.

8. Our incredible donors. Like our partners, none of the work mentioned above would be possible without our donors. These donors are individuals, families, cities, counties, businesses and organizations. I am humbled by their generosity and their belief in the work we do, especially during this critical time.

9. The staff at SMIF. They continue to adapt and provide meaningful support to the people and communities in our region. Whether it’s through the day-to-day work of our regular programming and operations or working quickly to support our region throughout the pandemic, their dedication to this work makes an incredible impact on our region’s vitality.

10. Last, but definitely not least, southern Minnesotans. You continue to show your resiliency and innovation in the face of immense challenges. I am proud to work alongside you as we navigate this new world together and build a brighter future for our region.

In the past 35 years, SMIF has invested $136 million in southern Minnesota. Here’s to the next 35 years!

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. Penny represented Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1982 to 1994.