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The people of Gardar, N.D., are renovating their Township Hall, and the check that was presented in October by the North Dakota Community Foundation will help. From left are Karen Langerud, Bruce Langerud, Tom Mullen, the Community Foundation's Ken Dvorak and Dawn Eckhardt. IMAGE: NDCF

Kevin Dvorak, president & CEO, ND Community Foundation: How philanthropy can drive economic growth

By Kevin Dvorak

BISMARCK, N.D. – While most community leaders focus on jobs and business development, one area that they may overlook – but shouldn’t – is the role that philanthropy and the nonprofit sector can play in a community’s vitality and growth.

What can philanthropy do for a community? Most have heard of the things that Denny Sanford has done with his philanthropy in Sioux Falls, or how Ralph Engelstad wrote the check that built the Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks. But, most have not heard of the difference that philanthropy at any level can have, especially in the form of local community foundations, which capture financial resources that would otherwise leave an area.

Once captured, those resources can be pooled and applied to address key issues in a community, improving the quality of life for area residents and potentially attracting newcomers.

Actual examples of projects partially or completely funded with philanthropic dollars include:

  • Repurposing an historic bank building into a working steakhouse for a town that lacked a fine dining establishment, thereby creating jobs, attracting people to spend time and money in the community and providing a convenient dining-out option for area residents. (Anamoose, N.D.)
  • Building a community center for events, wedding receptions, regional meetings and other gatherings, all of which used to have to be held elsewhere as there was no suitable space in town. (Pembina, N.D.)
  • Creating and expanding a children’s science museum that brings busloads of students almost daily to tour and learn. The school buses buy gasoline in the community, while the children eat a restaurant meal and may even stop to shop before returning to their hometown. (Minot, N.D.)
  • Converting and rehabbing an old opera house into a multi-purpose community center that includes a restaurant and coffee shop, a library, an event center and a beautiful opera house/theater room for local and professional productions. (Maddock, N.D.)
  • Updating local movie theaters to show the latest films on digital media. Though the conversion cost can be $100,000-plus per screen, this was a required change-over, as production companies had stopped sending films out in analog form.

Most rural movie houses didn’t have the cash flow to shoulder that kind of expense. So, local givers stepped in to raise the money to buy the equipment, enabling these vital recreational resources to still be available in town. (Grafton, Cavalier and Finley, N.D.)

  • Renovating the local swimming pool, which is a magnet for families. Some of the organizers of the campaign said that they wouldn’t live in a community that didn’t have a swimming pool for their children. (Wishek, N.D.)
  • Raising more than $1 million private dollars to build and enhance a school sports complex for a community that has a rich sports history. (Killdeer, N.D.)
  • Bringing a week-long theatre workshop to town so that local schoolchildren, who have no other opportunity to participate in theatre, can experience acting and working together to put on a show.  The week ends with an evening production that is well-attended by area residents. (Ashley, Milnor, Stanley and Cavalier, N.D.)

The private philanthropic dollars that supported these programs ranged from a few thousand dollars to more than a million dollars. In some cases, the philanthropic dollars completed a project that was already supported by the local government, filling the gap that had arisen because there weren’t enough tax dollars to fully fund the project.  

In other cases, the private philanthropic dollars were the primary resource to get the job done.

These are just a few of the hundreds of quality-of-life enhancements funded by private philanthropic dollars in communities across North Dakota. Prairie Business readers can certainly agree that these projects and others like them make for vibrant, active and attractive communities that both retain residents and attract new families and visitors.

Then, this influx builds not only a workforce, but also the next generation of leaders in a community.

Where do these philanthropic dollars actually come from?  They come from local residents, from people who’ve left the community but still have a warm spot in their heart for their hometown, and from area businesses.

Some of the dollars come from grants from outside sources such as foundations, corporate giving programs from corporations doing business in the area, utility companies, cooperatives, banks and credit unions.

The recent strong agriculture, energy and manufacturing economies in North Dakota have created substantial and sometimes hidden wealth that can be a resource to further the development and enhancement of our communities.

The potential of these private philanthropic resources to help transform our region – as shown in the examples above, and in ways that we have yet to discover – is vast.

When considering ways to support economic growth and community vitality, remember that philanthropy is a critical piece of the puzzle.

Kevin Dvorak

President & CEO

North Dakota Community Foundation

Bismarck, N.D.

kdvorak@ndcf.net