OP-ED: Statewide collaborations for thriving rural communities

OP-ED: Statewide collaborations for thriving rural communities

Business Section

Opinion Column

By Tim Penny
President, Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF)
March 28, 2024

smif president tim penny

As President of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), I have witnessed firsthand the power of collaboration. It is through partnering with other funders and organizations that we have been able to make transformative change in southern Minnesota. Additionally, as one of six Minnesota Initiative Foundations (MIFs) that supports Greater Minnesota, we are uniquely positioned to be a powerful partner for statewide change. In fact, SMIF has two grant rounds currently open that are only possible because of statewide collaborations.

Established in 1986, the MIFs emerged in response to the economic challenges facing rural Minnesota. With dwindling resources and a shifting economic landscape, many communities were struggling to thrive. When the metro-based McKnight Foundation recognized the need for targeted support for rural Minnesota, visionary leaders came together to form these regional place-based foundations. Today, there are six MIFs serving different regions of the state, each with a unique approach tailored to the specific needs of its communities.

At SMIF, we are proud to be part of this statewide network of change-makers. While we each have our own grant portfolio, the fact that we all have long-established relationships in Greater Minnesota makes it easy for us to work together to leverage even more resources for our respective communities. For example, during the beginning of the pandemic, state leaders reached out to the MIFs to see if we could help. We were able to rapidly respond to the crisis by funneling a collective $104.5 million to businesses, child care providers and communities in Greater Minnesota.


One of the ways we are flexing our collaborative muscle this year is through the new Community Responsive Grants program, made possible by the Otto Bremer Trust through its Community Responsive Fund. SMIF will award grants of $10,000 to $50,000 to organizations doing work within two pillars of Otto Bremer Trust’s founding mission: community asset building and health and wellbeing. Details and the application can be found at smifoundation.org/communitygrants. Contact Rae Jean Hansen at raejeanh@smifoundation.org with questions. Applications are due April 17, 2024.

SMIF is also partnering with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to deliver funding through the PROMISE Act Grant to businesses, and some nonprofits, in southern Minnesota. Grant awards will range from $10,000 to $50,000 and can be used for working capital to support a variety of expenses that occur in the regular course of business. As funds are limited, not all eligible businesses will receive a grant. Details and the application can be found at smifoundation.org/promise. Contact Melissa Langer at melissal@smifoundation.org with questions. Applications are due April 24, 2024.

Both grants are a result of collaboration and will be distributed throughout the state’s rural communities via each of the Minnesota Initiative Foundations. I always like to point out that SMIF’s tagline reads, “Collaborating for regional vitality.” This feels especially relevant right now with these open grants. By leveraging resources, the MIFs are able to maximize their impact and address current challenges facing rural communities.

From humble beginnings to statewide impact, the Minnesota Initiative Foundations have proven to be invaluable partners in the journey toward a more prosperous and equitable future for all Minnesotans. 

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

About Tim Penny

Tim Penny is the president & CEO of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. Tim represented Minnesota’s First Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1982 – 1994.

About Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation

Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), a donor-supported foundation, invests for economic growth in south central and southeastern Minnesota, serving a region that includes 20 counties, 175 communities and one Native nation. The Foundation has provided more than $162 million in grants, loans and programming within the region during the past 38 years. SMIF's key interests include entrepreneurship, early childhood development and community vitality. To learn more about our work and mission, visit www.smifoundation.org.

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