Opportunity knocked on Mayor Robert J. Demuth’s office door in 1990. Bob, who is now 92 and has lived in Worthington for 62 years, recalls the event that inspired the Worthington Area Foundation.
“I was in my office one day and somebody came in and said they’d like to give $50,000 to a foundation. I didn’t even know what a foundation was,” Bob said.
He was eager to keep that investment in the community and leapt into discovering how to start a foundation in Worthington. Bob formed a committee of Worthington citizens and asked for their input. They urged him to follow up with the interested philanthropists. Unfortunately, by then it was too late.
“They said, ‘No we’re not going to give to the foundation now.’ These were prominent people (on the committee), and I felt terrible we weren’t going to get the money,” Bob said.
To make up for the lost gift, he offered to make a $1,000 donation from him and his wife, Betty, to start the foundation. Two other committee members gave $50. The Worthington Area Foundation (WAF) started in 1991 with that $1,100. At first, the Minnesota Foundation based in Saint Paul managed its assets.
When Southwest Initiative Foundation (SWIF) piloted its community foundation program in 1999, the opportunity to have a local partner appealed to Bob and others involved with WAF. They transferred their funds and became a SWIF community foundation partner.
“Worthington is a great example of the vision of this program to grow philanthropy in our region and give people a way to support places they love. Millions of dollars in assets have been captured for the benefit of these communities. Keeping wealth here strengthens the ecosystem of rural communities,” said Diana Anderson, SWIF President and CEO and the staff member who originally worked with the program.
WAF is a permanent resource for the community that provides leadership and financial resources to meet community needs. It connects donors to options like named charitable funds that are permanently endowed and restricted for a specific purpose. These designated funds can be a wonderful way to leave a legacy, like the late Ron and Dorothy Nasers chose to do. Nasers created several designated funds under the umbrella of WAF, including one to benefit Manna Food Pantry, Inc. and another for the YMCA of Worthington.
Over the last 20 years, WAF has focused on building a legacy through its endowment and advised funds, which total more than $440,000 today. These assets allow the foundation to grow its grants throughout the community.
“It’s not just the money. It’s the idea that all of that money is spent in Worthington or the surrounding area,” Bob said. “It’s an amazing community.”
WAF has a strong history of support and has its eye on the future as the needs and opportunities change along with the community. Since 2000, Worthington’s population has grown 17 percent, and the county population has increased 5 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
New immigrants have been crucial to the city’s growth. More than one-third of Worthington residents were born overseas, according to data from Minnesota Compass.
“One of the things I love about Worthington is the welcoming spirit of the people in our community. We’re a very diverse community and we have worked at being very inclusive and taking pride in our diversity and viewing it as an asset,” said Sharon Johnson, a current WAF board member who has served on the board more than a decade.
Sharon is the Community Education director for District 518 Community Education and has a unique perspective on the community after 25 years with the Worthington School District. She’s filled out grant applications to many organizations and notes WAF has tried to keep its grant application simple and accessible.
“The philosophy of our board has been that we give small grants, but we give them to a wide range of organizations, so that organizations can do those small projects that really help them move things forward without having to do a huge amount of work on the application and the evaluation part of it,” Sharon said.
Over the last 20 years, WAF has awarded $197,026 in grants supporting percussion equipment for Worthington Area Symphony Orchestra, books and food for kids, historic preservation and athletes competing with Special Olympics. Sharon highlighted the International Festival as a uniquely Worthington event WAF has supported with grants totaling $7,850 over several years. The festival promotes the acceptance of individual differences and fostering positive relationships among groups with folk and traditional artist performances, immigrant panel discussions, food vendors, artisan booths, ethnic cultural education booths and activities for children.
“I think that any project that goes to help early childhood development is extremely important to our community,” said Jordan Huisken, the current board treasurer. “We receive many requests every year from the Worthington school district ranging from STEM programs to band and choir needs.”
Jordan volunteered for WAF because he appreciated the mission of the foundation and wanted to be a part of meeting unfulfilled needs in the Worthington area. His involvement gave him a deeper understanding of the work at SWIF and was part of the reason he joined SWIF’s Emerging Leaders Cabinet, a committee comprised specifically of people under the age of 40 created to explore current realities and trends and to create avenues of influence for a diverse group of leaders from across the region.
As a real estate lender at First State Bank Southwest, Jordan appreciates having so many businesses locally owned and operated who are equally invested in the success of the community.
“I enjoy Worthington because it offers a lot of the conveniences of a large city with the feel of a small hometown. The diversity of our community is also a blessing helping Worthington remain a strong economic center in the area,” Jordan said.
WAF strengthens Worthington too, helping it be a vibrant and welcoming community.
“I hope that in upcoming years we can pass the importance of the foundation on to others who can bring new ideas and energy and help carry the foundation forward to ensure continued success and community development,” Jordan said.
Worthington is one of four pilot communities of Southwest Initiative Foundation’s local community foundation program, celebrating 20 years in 2019. Read more about the history of the local community foundation program.