By Sam Easter
Published by the Grand Forks Herald on Jun 5, 2018
Grand Forks’ Community Foundation has been building a better city, dollar by dollar, for two decades now.
Formed after the devastation of the 1997 flood, its assets have since grown to more than $11 million, with about $5.6 million dollars disbursed to date. It has scores of separate funds, tied to the community in myriad ways — from the local curling club to public arts and more.
“I think we’re in a really good spot in terms of assets,” said Becca Bahnmiller, the group’s executive director. “I think that puts us in a really good place moving forward.”
Bahnmiller joined the organization in October, succeeding Sheila Bruhn as the group’s top staffer, who had led the foundation on an interim basis for for much of the year. A UND alumna and a former employee of the Empire Arts Center, Bahnmiller has also worked in donations and fundraising for New York City’s New School and for a special education group based in the Twin Cities. Her hiring, which comes after nearly a decade of leadership from former director Kristi Mishler, marked a new era for the city’s biggest philanthropic group.
Bahnmiller pointed out that the foundation has agreed to administer arts funding on behalf of the city and is a sponsor for the “Main Street Grand Forks Challenge” — which matches students with funding to work on community projects. She praised the work being done by the foundation’s Women’s Fund, which has about $700,000 in assets guided by an all-woman advisory board.
This summer, it’s launching “Gears of Gratitude,” a project that places decorated bikes throughout the community, all sponsored, culminating in a wide-ranging public art project that places them in the community this summer. The project is capped with an event at the end of the year, and the entire enterprise is tied to the Community Foundation’s 20 years in the community.
The foundation was launched in the aftermath of the 1997 flood as community leaders sought to boost a community ravaged by the Red River. Pat Berger, who was an early member of its board of directors, was present for its inaugural meeting in November of that year. According to foundation documents, the group received its nonprofit status in January 1998, when it formally organized its leadership and bylaws.
“Those first couple of years were, ‘Are we going to be able to keep this organization afloat, afford an office etc?’ Some very basic needs,” said Berger, the president and CEO of Grand Forks’ United Way. She added that, as the foundation was forming, leaders had to explain its mission. “In my case, I remember answering a lot of questions from people saying ‘Isn’t that what United Way does?’ Berger’s response would focus on the United Way’s interest in immediate needs and poverty. The foundation, in contrast, was built for a broader mission.
Compared to its size today, that mission started small. The foundation hired staff beginning in 1999, and an anonymous donor pushed its total assets past $1 million for the first time in 2000. The following year, it had 15 funds, including endowments for the Humane Society, the local symphony orchestra and more. In 2002, it distributed just shy of $90,000. Last year, it gave away about $660,000, according to foundation documents.
“What we use out of our fund is interest … made available for partner agencies and ourselves to bring in or go to conferences (or) trainings,” Berger said, like sending a staffer to a summit on addressing community poverty. “We recognize that those dollars are the first to go when you cut budgets.”
Derrick Johnson is vice president of the foundation’s board of directors. He said the foundation faces challenges familiar to any other group in its role. As board leadership comes and goes, often they need to strike a careful balance scouting donors and disbursing funding — but he’s happy with where the foundation is today.
“Things are going very well,” he said. “The key thing is that we have granted millions of dollars back into the community for a whole variety of different organizations.”