It’s a sunny afternoon, and downtown Willmar is buzzing. Friends exchange hellos at the coffeehouse. A line forms in the post office lobby. Shop owners sew hijabs, fix computers, sell antiques. Later, as the sun goes down, the lights will come up on opening night for “The Three Musketeers” at The Barn Theatre. Gary and Nancy Geiger will be there for the premiere, in the downtown they love, in the city they’ve called home for 40 years and counting.
“Whether it’s Willmar or another community, you have a lot to do with what makes you want to stay there. It’s important to be involved in the community,” Nancy said. “I think about growing up in Murdock, and I feel that’s what I learned from my parents: If you’re part of this community, make it the best you can. Do what you can.”
“If you’re part of this community, make it the best you can. Do what you can.” – Nancy Geiger
Geigers have certainly taken that wisdom to heart. They moved a lot with Gary’s career before they settled in the Willmar area in 1975. Both are retired now, and they enjoy time with their grown sons and their families. As part-owners of Heritage Bank, they remain active in the business community. Gary is a former chairman and CEO at the bank, and a current board member. He’s also on the board at The Barn Theatre, where Nancy has also played a major role, including on stage (pictured below). Nancy first acted in a show when it was literally a barn. She moved on to lead the theatre’s operations for more than a decade. She loves how art connects people.
“I can’t tell you all the people I’ve been in different shows with that I wouldn’t have had the chance to know any other way,” Nancy said. “And now I’m a volunteer. Not JUST a volunteer, but a volunteer. I don’t like it when people say, ‘I’m just a volunteer,’ like that’s not important.”
The couple has volunteered their time all over town — the chamber, their church, the food shelf, the nursing home, various boards and capital campaigns. Gary and Nancy are natural connectors, bringing people together around ideas big and small. And they value the connections Southwest Initiative Foundation (SWIF) makes throughout southwest Minnesota to support businesses and close the opportunity gap for kids living in poverty.
“When we’re asked to give or volunteer, we look at what an organization’s goals are and how successful they are. SWIF passed both tests,” Gary said.
Geigers were charter members of SWIF’s Growing Home Circle in 2005 and continue that support of the foundation’s general endowment. Gary also volunteered six years on SWIF’s Board of Directors and provided great vision and strategic direction.
“SWIF’s entrepreneurship, business finance, and economic development programs have been heavily impacted by Gary’s wisdom, mission-focused guidance, and business acumen shared with us during his tenure on the board of directors,” said Scott Marquardt, SWIF’s Vice President. “Gary always challenged us to make sure we had the products, policies, and procedures that advanced our mission and the region’s economy in the best way possible. For me personally, Gary was a mentor and advisor who could always help me think through complicated questions and scenarios and focus on solutions that were best for our clients and our communities.”
Geigers recently created a donor-advised fund at the foundation, which allows them to make a charitable contribution, receive an immediate tax benefit and recommend grants from the fund.
“We decided to call it the Gary and Nancy Geiger Gratitude Fund. That’s what giving is about, a grateful heart,” Nancy said.
You can create a named, charitable fund that benefits a specific area of interest, such as a school, historical society, hospice program — or other cause! Learn more about creating a fund.
Connecting kids to career pathways
During his SWIF board service, Gary Geiger connected with Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities (CEO), a program that introduces kids to entrepreneurship through hands-on experiences and business tours. He immediately wanted to bring the opportunity to Willmar.
“I was lucky. In high school I worked at my father’s factory after school and I got to learn a lot about business. I realized most kids don’t get that kind of experience,” Gary said.
CEO is backed by local investors, with no direct cost to schools. When Gary shared the idea of a local CEO chapter with his breakfast networking group, he had a dozen supporters on the spot. With the cooperative spirit of Willmar’s businesses, and a few connections, it didn’t take long to raise the remaining investors needed to launch Kandiyohi Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities (KCEO).
Five years in, KCEO has connected more than 70 students in three school districts with hundreds of local businesses, helping them discover career possibilities close to home and inspiring students to think like entrepreneurs.
“To know the owner, manager, or the CEO of a local company by name creates a powerful web of support that our students do not fully comprehend yet,” said KCEO Facilitator Tyler Gehrking. “Our goal is to build good people that will one day help keep our
communities vibrant places to live and work.”
“To know the owner, manager, or the CEO of a local company by name creates a powerful web of support that our students do not fully comprehend yet.” -Tyler Gehrking, KCEO Facilitator
At SWIF’s Grow Our Own Summit in 2016, communities in the southwest corner of our region connected with KCEO and were so impressed, they launched a new chapter. Southwest Minnesota CEO (SWMN CEO) welcomed its first class in fall 2018, opening new doors to 22 students from seven different schools in Rock and Pipestone counties. SWIF has invested in these programs to help students connect to career pathways that lead to meaningful employment. Donors like Gary and Nancy make these connections possible with their support.
Gary and Nancy’s story was featured in our annual report, “Looking Forward, Giving Back.” View the annual report