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Initiative Foundation: Community Collaborators & Connectors

Visit with Marc Van Herr about his time as a 2021-2022 member of the Initiators Fellowship, a two-year social enterprise program developed by the Initiative Foundation, and it won’t be long before you note the enthusiasm in his voice as he talks about the benefits.

“The Initiators Fellowship afforded me the opportunity to explore and define my social enterprise,” said the founder of The Beautiful Mind Project and Mindology Mental Wellness Center in St. Cloud. “It was the best thing that I’ve ever done. We’re making a difference in our community every day, every week, in changing lives and saving lives, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the Fellowship.”

Van Herr is one of many Greater St. Cloud-area residents who have aligned with the Initiative Foundation through its myriad programs and services to grow themselves or their organizations while they help to enrich the wider region.

Established in 1986 with its headquarters in Little Falls, the Initiative Foundation employs a unique set of tools to deliver meaningful impact to the 14 counties and two Native Nations it serves in Central Minnesota. The Foundation’s offerings include the grantmaking and donor services of a community foundation; the training and business services of an economic development nonprofit; and business lending in partnership with local banks and credit unions, with a focus on reaching underserved audiences. 

Driving its work is a mission that has remained largely unchanged since the Initiative Foundation’s founding more than three decades ago: 

To empower people throughout Central Minnesota to build a thriving economy, vibrant communities, and a lasting culture of generosity.

“The overarching goal is to connect local people with resources that help them take actions that benefit our region,” said Initiative Foundation President Matt Varilek.

Programs that are making a difference in Greater St. Cloud include:

  • Initiators Fellowship: Offering a two-year suite of support for social entrepreneurs, the Initiators Fellowship includes training, mentoring, and networking opportunities. Fellows are supported by a $30,000 annual stipend. Recruitment for the 2024-2025 Initiators Fellowship cohort continues through June 15. 

  • Enterprise Academy: Supported by the Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation and delivered in partnership with Higher Works Collaborative and Central Minnesota Community Empowerment Organization, the Enterprise Academy is anchored by a 12-week educational course for early-stage entrepreneurs.

  • Nonprofit Development: The Initiative Foundation’s suite of nonprofit programs and training opportunities support Greater St. Cloud organization as they work to provide critical safety net services, remove barriers to employment, enhance local economic development, and increase civic participation.

  • Business financing: As a certified Community Development Financial Institution, the Foundation’s business loans work to strengthen communities and diversify local economies while creating quality jobs with living wages and benefits.

  • Donor services: The Initiative Foundation hosts a growing number of donor-advised and other philanthropic funds on behalf of local families, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and volunteer-led groups. Grants from these assets, called Partner Funds, can be awarded to nonprofits, schools, and local units of government to support programs and initiatives that reflect the donors’ intent, values, and experiences.

Progress Rooted in Partnerships

As the largest population center in the Initiative Foundation’s Central Minnesota region, Greater St. Cloud is a vibrant and diverse community that is attractive for long-time residents and newcomers alike. “Any community would be fortunate to have the diverse range of successful employers that call the Greater St. Cloud area home. Combine that with talented workers, attractive amenities, and a large philanthropic presence, and you’ve got a powerful combination,” Varilek said.

“Better still is the fact that so many of these individual stakeholders have a strong ethic of collaboration—all of which means organizations like the Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation can help us to achieve a level of coordinated impact that far exceeds the sum of our individual parts,” he said. “We’re grateful to the Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation for its leadership and grateful to the organization’s many investors and partners for their willingness to ‘row in the same direction’ toward growth and inclusive prosperity.”

The Place We Call Home

The Initiative Foundation team of 28 staff members live throughout the region—from St. Cloud to Sauk Centre—and pour their passions into their work. It’s the place they call home, and they’re vested in making it shine.

“There are plenty of things to worry about in this world of ours, but there also are many stories of inspiration and progress that we don’t always hear about,” Varilek said. “That’s one of the reasons we appreciate St. Cloud Shines. It features the richness of the Greater St. Cloud area—the people, the community organizations, the businesses—and how we work together to make this region thrive.”

A Greater Minnesota Network

The Initiative Foundation is part of a larger network of Minnesota Initiative Foundations. As independent foundations, each organization serves a unique geographic region in Greater Minnesota with grants, business loans, programs and priorities, and donor services.

What ties these organizations together is a unique origin story and shared history. The 1980s were a bleak time for rural Minnesota—a period when the state’s mining, agricultural, and forestry industries were facing their worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Leaders at Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation saw what was happening and wanted to help. After traveling the state to listen, learn and connect, they knew the solutions would come by empowering local communities to chart their own way forward.

In 1986, McKnight provided the initial funding to start the six Minnesota Initiative Foundations. With a focus on economic and community development, the six Minnesota Initiative Foundations have provided $349 million in grants and $318 million in business investments to Greater Minnesota over the past four decades.

“That shared history showcases the power of partnerships, leveraging resources to create greater impact than we could on our own,” Varilek said. The Foundation’s ability to attract resources from government sources, national grantmakers and Twin Cities philanthropies has served as an important economic engine for the region. “For every dollar we raise locally, we’re able to put an average of $6.05 into the Greater St. Cloud area of Benton, Sherburne, and Stearns counties—a great return on local investment.”