Annual Letter from the Trustees

The old adage that “change is a constant” took on real meaning this last year as we recognized trustee Bill Lipschultz for his many years of service and welcomed his son Brian as a new trustee.

When new people join an organization they bring the opportunity to review how and why we do what we do. Fresh eyes can lead to insightful questions and perspectives. This review is a healthy exercise for any organization to undertake that considers itself a learning organization.

“Learning organization” has a nice ring to it, but what does it look like in practice? What role does learning play in moving an organization toward its goals? Like many other philanthropic organizations, we at the Otto Bremer Foundation spend time and energy thinking about and engaging in learning to make our work more effective. Before participating in any educational option, we ask ourselves some fundamental questions:

What do we want to learn? Why is it important? How and from whom will we get relevant information? To what end?

The answers to these questions vary case by case of course, but when the questions are clearly answered, we can identify and take advantage of opportunities that expand our collective knowledge and move us toward our goals.

Because of our structure and history, we are committed to the communities that are homes to Bremer banks and seek to serve as a resource to local and regional organizations that help to move these communities forward. To fulfill this commitment, one of our primary objectives is to be knowledgeable about communities’ assets as well as specific issues. While we see that many communities share common challenges, each also has unique characteristics because of local leadership, available resources and, often, physical location. Over time, with our questions to guide us, we have developed a variety of methods of gathering and sharing information.

Research. With the ever-increasing availability of data, we are able to compile relevant and timely information about a community’s demographics as well as organizational and individual resources. Good research can also give us information about those coming together around common issues.

Site Visits. Each year, the Foundation’s program staff travel throughout the three- state area visiting with hundreds of nonprofits as part of the application-review process. In addition to giving the program staff a good understanding of a particular organization, these visits also provide first-hand opportunities to learn about the broader community and its strengths, challenges, leaders and potential partners.

Evaluation. Over the course of the last couple of years, staff and trustees have been expanding on an evaluative approach in gathering information about organizations. This approach gives us tools to analyze the effectiveness of programs and services, community involvement and support, existing and potential partnerships and other essential factors that help move whole communities forward. We have found that front-end analysis promotes conversations that challenge an organization to illustrate how its proposed work will lead to identified goals. As we learn more about organizational and programmatic successes, we look for ways to share these lessons with others doing similar work.

Convenings. Throughout the course of the year, the trustees and staff participate in convenings structured to bring together people knowledgeable about a particular topic or place. These meetings provide opportunities for us to hear about local dynamics from those who live in a community and to learn about effective strategies from those who have special expertise in specific issues. The education that takes place in these convenings is multidimensional, with participants acting as both teachers and students in sharing and discussing information.

Foundation Education Sessions. In the course of the day-to-day work of the Foundation, topics arise that affect people throughout the region. As a first step in determining whether or not the Foundation can play a constructive role in helping to address an issue, we recognize the need to fully understand the challenge, identify those who are taking action and learn about various approaches and their effectiveness. In order to get relevant information, we arrange for periodic in-house presentations, inviting experts in the field to spend a morning with us. No matter our subsequent actions, these meetings expand our knowledge about topics that have an impact on many people.

Communications. The thread that binds together and advances our various avenues of learning is communications, both internal and external. We draw on a variety of resources to share information that can strengthen the work of others with common objectives. We hope you will subscribe to our e-newsletter, follow us on Twitter and check our website and blog periodically. But we know that making the information that is available to us useful entails more than distributing and reading reports. It is relationships and interchanges with experienced people that give information life. This premise is not new; as Benjamin Franklin said more than two hundred years ago, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

As has been the case since the formation of the Foundation in 1944, the trustees are involved in managing an enterprise that involves banking, investments and philanthropy. Each area must be successful in order to fulfill Otto’s intent of a perpetual trust. We are keenly aware that our decisions have far-reaching impact on many stakeholders, and we take this responsibility seriously.

Bringing fresh perspective to our learning process has both confirmed certain beliefs and given us new insights leading to an evolution of our thinking—in other words, “change.” We recognize this change as a strength of the Otto Bremer Foundation.

 

Charlotte S. Johnson

S. Brian Lipschultz

Daniel C. Reardon