Mark Lofthus and Marian Blattner’s handwriting is all over the Southwest Initiative Foundation’s earliest documents. They were leaders in what became the formation of the six Minnesota Initiative Foundations, including SWIF, in the 1980s.
It began at the Countryside Council, a nonpartisan, public issue research and education organization housed at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. Throughout the 1970s, this nonprofit think tank dove into rural topics like transportation, telecommunication and the economy.
Marian moved to Marshall in 1982 to work at the Council. “My job was to put together a national conference,” she said. Mark was a half-time, $5 an hour intern and worked on the Council’s telecommunications task force.
The couple married in 1986 and quickly found themselves deep into grassroots, community revitalization efforts.
“The environment today is nothing like it was,” Mark said. “There were no jobs, period.” The Council created a task force on economic stress, hosting meetings and conducting research, but they were strapped for resources. “We were trying to understand what was going on,” he said. “Our board said, ‘do what you can.’”
It was after reading articles and editorials in the then-Minneapolis Star Tribune about The McKnight Foundation that things began to happen. “Our board said, ‘go to McKnight to pay for this taskforce,’” Mark said. He got the courage to call and ask for help but thought it was a dead end. Days later, a check for $8,000 arrived.
Community meetings continued, and so did conversations with McKnight, whose leaders wanted to aid in rural economic recovery. They criss-crossed the state, talking about funding proposals and how to divide the work by regions.
“That can be a hard sell,” Marian said of the regional topic. “People didn’t realize there were commonalities between their communities.” Eventually, ideas and boundaries were formed and grant applications were submitted. Mark recalls sitting in a meeting with McKnight staff and statewide organizers where each person received a small, folded piece of paper showing the grant amount their region received. Mark’s said $2.8 million—and the Southwest Minnesota Initiative Fund was born.
Since that day, there have been new programs, new leaders, even new names for Southwest Initiative Foundation—but there is always a commitment to our region and the people who call it home. Mark and Marian now live outside of southwest Minnesota but contribute as Growing Home Circle donors. Mark calls the foundation “excellent stewards of the endowment” and a vehicle for realigning the work that started long ago. “People who are giving today are a part of it,” he said.
Marian sees giving as a continuation of their investment in the region. She’s also grateful for the amount of time that so many have given along the way. “That sense that together, collectively, you can come up with solutions … the people that showed up, without knowing if anything would happen; these people deserve the credit.”