The RTR Educational Foundation has raised nearly $800,000 in its first four years to give kids the best possible start to life in the rural communities of Russell, Tyler and Ruthton. Local board members have inspired generosity in their small towns and from donors across the country who still have a place in their hearts for their hometowns. The all-volunteer advisory board launched in 2019 with the tagline “all in – invested, involved, innovative, insightful and inspired.”
“Our board is an awesome group of volunteers who contribute their time. It’s a good, productive board and it’s fun,” said John Bornhoft, who chairs the RTR Educational Foundation. “I end every email or every agenda with ‘Together we are making a difference,’ and I think we are.”
RTR Educational Foundation formed when the district announced plans for a new school in Tyler to house grades K-12. The school district bid the project with materials just above the median because of high costs. The foundation set a goal of enhancing the new school by providing funding to purchase the best material and equipment money could buy.
“We at RTR ISD No. 2902 were truly blessed by the efforts and generosity of the RTR Foundation, and they are still working hard to raise additional funding to do even more enhancements to our building,” said Superintendent David Marlette. “The RTR Educational Foundation has been an outstanding partner in building our new school.”
Grants from the foundation helped fund top-of-the-line chairs in the auditorium; state-of-the-art sound, light, and video equipment; enhanced lunchroom and media center furniture; backs on the home side of main competition gym seating; and individual classroom systems to improve education outcomes for all students, among other things.
The district’s enrollment is about 650 students, which includes Erin Sanderson’s first-grade son. Erin sits on the foundation board and is a fundraiser by trade, the Executive Director of the Sanford Health Foundation in Sioux Falls. Erin’s husband grew up in Tyler, and they’re raising their two young children in the community.
“I knew right when I moved to the RTR area one of the biggest areas of opportunity was our school system,” Erin said. “I want to give our kids the best chance at life and education and these opportunities as I can. It’s fun to be able to directly see them using that. This has just been a dream come true as a parent. I value the thought that went into everything.
“My first-grader thinks for sure he’s going to play professional football; I’m really impressed with the turf football field we were able to support, and the athletic program all around. It allows our kids to have these big city opportunities when it comes to athletics, which isn’t always the case in small towns.”
In addition to Erin and John, the foundation advisory board includes Dianne Borreson, Bill Clark, Dick Kidman, Lora Matzner, Dale Schak, Jodi Schreurs and Sara Thomas. More than half are local high school graduates, and most have kids or grandkids who attend RTR. The board made its mission to enrich educational programs, invest in innovative opportunities that would not otherwise be possible and expand lifetime opportunities and experiences for RTR students and community.
“I like to share the success story of the RTR Educational Foundation because it shows what’s possible even in the smallest towns. We may not always see it, but communities in rural Minnesota have wealth. It’s a matter of finding the right local projects and then going out and asking for support to keep those dollars in the community,” said Jeff Vetsch, community philanthropy officer for Southwest Initiative Foundation (SWIF).
RTR Educational Foundation is a fund partner of SWIF, which hosts more than 120 different funds. Through the partnership, local advisory board members fundraise and direct grants while SWIF staff process gifts, offer training and provide the legal tax structure to make local donations tax deductible.
“It’s so fun to enhance the school and make a difference. SWIF helped us do that by supplying the 501(c)(3) side of it, which was very important. It’s a very good partnership,” John said.
John grew up in the area and graduated with the Tyler High School Class of 1970. Today he’s the CEO of Buffalo Ridge Concrete. He works a block away from the new school building and watched the construction progress daily, meanwhile helping stir up support. RTR Educational Foundation’s fundraising mainly relied on mail, social media and school communications.
“I think the exposure is always the biggest thing. You need to communicate with your people that are donating money either with thank you notes or with letting them know what you’re doing and showing them that you’re making a difference. I think that’s why we are successful is communication,” John said.
“We make sure when we do something, we do it with a splash so it kind of sees the inboxes and mailboxes of all different generations,” Erin said. “We’re really timely with how we fundraise. We don’t have campaigns going all the time. If we know there’s an identified need, we sit down as a board and say how are we going to make this possible?”
Donors from as far away as California and Colorado have made gifts, but many came from the communities of Russell, Tyler and Ruthton, with a combined population of 1,837.
“None of this would be possible without the generosity of the RTR communities. There’s strategy behind everything we do, but we have to have a group of people respond. The way that our community rallies around each other is really beautiful,” Erin said.
Last year was the first school year in the new building. As the second year of classes gets under way, fundraising continues to support new needs. Erin offered some advice for other community fundraisers looking for donations to their local projects:
“Never lose sight of why you’re doing it. Fundraising is hard. Take it from someone who does it as a living. You get told no a lot. Never forget why you’re doing it, and ultimately the difference you’re going to make,” Erin said.
Thanks to the generosity of donors, Southwest Initiative Foundation distributed 1,029 grants totaling $6.6 million from all our funds in fiscal year 2022. Read more from our Fiscal Year 2022 Annual Impact Report.