Future of Us: How the pandemic has and hasn’t changed the ‘Land of 20,000 Nonprofits’

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Tonya Allen, president of the McKnight Foundation, says Minnesota has the resources needed for transformational change, but its philanthropic community needs a shared vision to actually move the needle. “I think that sometimes we have to set aside our own priorities,” Allen said, “to actually move forward a collective set of priorities.”
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

This story is part of a series called “Future of Us,” exploring how a pandemic, a murder and a city on fire have changed us and our path forward.

In 2020, hundreds of philanthropic organizations across the country signed a pledge. They would make it easier for money to flow into the hands of nonprofits serving their communities during the pandemic. They pledged to lift restrictions on how programs could spend money and ease reporting requirements that funders use to hold grantees accountable.

In Minnesota, this new way of doing things, as well as racial justice initiatives following the murder of George Floyd and an opening of federal faucets, led to a dramatic increase in giving over 2019 levels. While there have been reports of misused federal funds, making it easier for nonprofits to receive funding seems to be a pandemic trend that will stick.

The Minnesota Council on Foundations, which tracks giving in the state, has found that shifts in grantmaking practices, including more gifts to BIPOC-led organizations, have held steady — and even further evolved — each of the last three years.

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“We had so many hoops, so much bureaucracy that we would put in front of our partners in order for them to get the resources that they need. And it was really driven by a lack of trust,” said Tonya Allen, president of the McKnight Foundation. “I would argue today that if we give resources to people we don't trust, then that's poor stewardship. The burden is on us, not on them.”

Allen said this new approach has also led to more proactive giving. In September, the McKnight Foundation surprised several nonprofits with $2 million in economic relief grants.

“What we learned was that if we know there's a need, answer it. Don't wait for people to have to ask you for certain things,” she said. 

But Allen stopped short of calling it all a transformation. In fact, she called it “incremental.”

“I've heard, ‘Minnesota, the state of 10,000 lakes — and 20,000 nonprofits.’ I don't want to suggest in any way that 20,000 nonprofits aren't doing good work. What I'm trying to suggest is that at some point or another, we're going to have to curate our interests,” Allen said. “There's no community that's ever made it through tough times without creating some focus and intentionality about what comes first.”

At McKnight, that focus is on racial equity and the climate. Allen points to its GroundBreak Coalition as an example of how she’d like to see philanthropy move forward. Rather than creating a standalone fund focused on these issues, McKnight is spearheading a group of more than 40 civic, corporate and philanthropic leaders who have agreed to deploy their funds under a shared vision.

“That is very different than, ‘I'll give you some money and I'll turn my head,’” Allen said.

GroundBreak partners have pledged $2 billion over a decade to lift up BIPOC communities through housing and economic opportunity, all with an eye on the climate.

“I think that sometimes we have to set aside our own priorities,” Allen said, “to actually move forward a collective set of priorities.”

Listen to our full conversation with Tonya Allen using the audio player above.