Unlimited potential: Swanson hired as executive director at NRACF
"My first task is to meet with folks and listen. It's a good opportunity for me to learn about donor's interests, their connections to the community and to the history of New Richmond. It's also a chance to talk about where they see the foundation going in the next five years."
Newly hired Executive Director of the New Richmond Area Community Foundation Margret Swanson impresses as a comfortable, confident leader committed to taking the NRACF to the next level.
Swanson's impressive resume includes most recently a five-year stint as the sole director of fund development for the Minnesota Humanities Center. Prior to her work for the Center, she directed fund development and marketing at Textile Center, a nationally recognized fiber arts organization located in Minneapolis. Swanson maintains a small consulting business providing fundraising and planning services to a variety of cultural, social service and educational organizations in the Twin Cities region.
What impressed Swanson most about the NRACF opportunity was how much has already been accomplished by the all-volunteer board.
"I was very impressed with what this foundation created with volunteers and being so strategic by identifying the destiny drivers, hunger, shelter, leadership, literacy, pathways and economy. The questions is, 'what do we do next with those initiatives?'" said Swanson.
In addition to the creation of the destiny drivers, Swanson identified two other primary foundation achievements that contributed to its success, so much so that it has become a model for other community foundations in the region.
In 2017 the NRACF Leadership Trust Initiative (LTI) graduated its ninth class bringing the total number of community members to have taken the two-part intensive leadership development program to 185.
"LTI is a huge model. I'm going to participate in the next session, the 10th session, because there's nothing like first-hand experience. I think there is some opportunity there with what will now be ten cohorts of people who have gone through this program. I want to spend some time figuring what else we should be doing with that umbrella of leadership. What can we be doing to keep those networks alive and to support their continuing education and leadership," said Swanson.
In 2012, the NRACF became an affiliate of the St. Croix Valley Foundation (SCVF). In addition to benefiting from a valley-wide perspective as a result of joining forces with nine other community foundations under the SCVF umbrella, the partnership allowed SCVF to manage the strategic investment of NRACF funds.
"A big part of the motivation to join SCVF was, that by becoming an affiliate, the donor funds that we had are now invested there. Working with a national investment firm, those funds have produced a really strong performance in the last couple years including a better than 12 percent return in 2016," said Swanson.
As the SCVF prepares to embark on a multi-year $7.5 million endowment campaign in 2018, Swanson wants donors and community members to know there will be no conflict between the NRACF and SCVF in their individual pursuit of funds.
"We've been clear. Our board members, especially Chair Tim O'Brien, have worked closely with the SCVF to see that no toes are stepped on. There will always be somebody from our board or myself representing our community foundation in meetings with the SCVF and folks to talk about the campaign. The SCVF has agreed to always respect the intent and interest of the donor," said Swanson.
That trust has freed up the NRACF and now more specifically, Swanson, to focus on finding even more innovative ways to foster philanthropy and leadership locally in New Richmond.
"We have great board members, but they all have day jobs. Taking the step to hire me shows that NRACF is farther along than some of the other affiliates. The board determined now is the time for this opportunity. There are going to be changes to some of the systems that NRACF had to rely on SCVF to do. Now I can take some of that on. But most of my focus will be on how I can build the funds and work with donors," said Swanson.
One of the areas Swanson wants to focus on is raising more unrestricted funds for the foundation. Unrestricted funds can be awarded at the discretion of the foundation.
"Unrestricted money is the hardest money to attract," Swanson said. "It can also be the most responsive kind of money for a grant maker to have. We're looking for folks who, rather than being really restrictive with where their gift is going, are willing to donate to our Community Needs Fund. We can be more flexible with that money over time. As issues and needs change, those dollars can be used to respond. So the food shelf might have a particular need this year, but that could change in two years, so we could still be addressing hunger but in different ways."
Swanson is also evaluating the foundation programmatically.
"I'm just learning about that process. We give out small grants twice a year. I have ideas about how we can broaden that. Part of my job is also how can we build that so we can give out more money," said Swanson.
Making the move across the river from an environment which is favorable to philanthropy and enjoys consistent governmental support to one, which does not, doesn't deter Swanson.
"I knew that coming in. It's very important that the community foundation stay neutral politically. That's the beauty of the community foundation. That's not our role. We have an important job to do in terms of convening and looking at issues and trying to move things in a positive way that brings everybody along," she said.
In her role as NRACF executive director, Swanson has already weighed in on the new library as a member of the committee studying viable funding for the project.
"Right now for the library, it's about getting a clear idea of how much money can really be raised. There are a lot of questions to be answered in the next couple months. I'm not sure what role the community foundation will play at this point, but we want to make sure we are a part of the process, at least listening and seeing what might make sense in the future," said Swanson.
Swanson also anticipates that impacts from the new bridge will play a significant role in future foundation programs.
"It will have an impact. We need to be mindful and anticipate what kind of growth makes sense for this city. We need to determine what kind of a vitality we want to nurture to make this a place where families want to live, raise their children, appreciate the school system and other opportunities that are here," said Swanson.
Swanson's part-time plate is full at the moment between lunches with donors and board members, turning a cell phone, laptop and email address into a real office, improving the website and expanding the foundation's social media presence. Between sips of coffee, she smiles excited by all of the potential she sees ahead ,yet keeping her eye on the next pitch, never letting herself get too far ahead.
"I really wanted this job. My head is churning with ideas but it's not my place yet to say we're going to do this and this and this. It really gets back to, this is about our community and this is about leaving the community as good or better than you found it, whether it's a legacy gift or if it's just something where its money in and money out right now. The community foundation is still one of the best ways to benefit our community."
For information about starting a fund or questions about the foundation, contact Swanson at firstname.lastname@example.org.