A new supporter of Minnesota Compass, The Otto Bremer Foundation is committed to communities that are homes and neighbors to Bremer banks in Minnesota, North Dakota, and western Wisconsin. Since its founding in 1944, the Foundation has provided more than $410 million to help build healthy, vibrant communities.
Compass talked with Randi Roth, Executive Director of the Bremer Foundation since 2008, about community involvement and the Foundation's role in promoting it.
Q: In Robert Putnam’s book, "Bowling Alone," he argues that Americans are increasingly less interested in their communities. Do you see that in the communities Bremer Foundation serves?
We actually see a relatively high level of community involvement in Bremer Bank communities. Perhaps in part it is a function of the Foundation's funding over time of key community institutions, a function of these particular communities having the attributes that contribute to supporting a successful banking business, and in part because these communities tend to have a culture that supports a high level of volunteerism (practiced by Bremer Bank employees and others). That said, more involvement would be better, and the communities are facing tremendous challenges these days.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges communities face?
The biggest challenges are economic, civic, and social. In terms of economic challenges, there are many people in the communities who are unable to obtain good jobs. This creates tremendous stresses for families and communities. In terms of civic and social challenges, the growing elderly population needs care; the very young need access to high quality early childhood education; youth need strong, effective community support for healthy development; and the schools and communities overall need to learn how to effectively integrate people who have come to the communities from all over the world, and who speak many different languages. For example, the schools in one of our communities include children who speak 40 different languages. It is very difficult for the school system to rise to the challenge of providing a quality education to all in this situation.
Q: Your organization is unique in that the Foundation and the Bremer Bank employees own its community banks. What opportunities does that provide?
The Foundation's 92 percent ownership of the Bremer Banks means that we are never a stranger in our communities. That is one of the greatest strengths in the ownership model from the Foundation's perspective. The Foundation's learning is based on many contributions—we examine data, we meet with grant applicants, we talk with many community leaders and community members—but the banks give us a starting point to orient ourselves to the communities.
Another opportunity is that our trustees, who serve as both Foundation trustees and as bank directors, have a high level of understanding of financial matters. This helps them to assess the financial aspects of proposed work.
During the recession the Foundation continued its historical support for efforts to address immediate needs during a time of crisis while also supporting opportunities to achieve long-term economic stability. This two-pronged approach is rooted in Otto Bremer’s belief that people could survive and flourish if they had help at critical times
Q: Many of Minnesota’s private foundations are becoming more targeted in their giving, and shortening their grant cycles. What is the philosophy at Bremer Foundation?
The Otto Bremer Foundation is open to grant applications on a very wide range of topics. Our web site contains our vision for communities, called our Mission and Meaning statement (ottobremer.org/about/mission). Except for a few topic areas in which we generally do not fund (ottobremer.org/grantmaking/overview), we are open to any proposal from any qualifying entity in a Bremer Bank community that asks for funding to move the community towards that vision. Because the amount requested in proposals often exceeds our budget for giving, we try to elevate the work that will most powerfully move the communities forward. We generally make one-year grants, but when it is important to accomplish the work outlined in the proposal, we will consider two- and even three-year grants.
Q: You've introduced a new logo and tagline that symbolize the “energy, movement and vibrancy” of the Otto Bremer Foundation. What are some examples of ways that the Foundation is living those attributes?
The energy, movement and vibrancy of our new logo convey our vision for Bremer communities and our active, involved and optimistic role in helping communities create a positive future. The way we best live those qualities is by seeking an understanding of what life is really like in our communities, and by staying responsive to that reality. We make site visits throughout our three-state region in response to most of our proposals, which gives us the opportunity to touch base in person and learn what is happening on the ground. We conduct convenings in our communities on topics that seem to be pressing region-wide so we can learn more. And in some cases, we work with grantees and other community leaders through initiative work to support their design of solutions to tough problems and their ability to take advantage of important opportunities.
Q: You came to Minnesota in the mid-80’s. What one thing has impressed you the most about the people who live here?
The thing that impresses me the most is the mixture of a strong work ethic, great pride in important accomplishments, and a down-to-earth, humble nature. Many of the people I've worked with in Minnesota come from farm backgrounds, and I've learned that the farm community expects that behavior. I think that the family farm culture has influenced the larger culture here in Minnesota, and I really like that.