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Learn what United Way of Northeastern Minnesota is doing to grow their endowment fund and encourage legacy giving among donors of all ages.

United Way of Northeastern Minnesota has one of the largest geographical service areas of all United Ways in the nation, serving individuals from just north of Duluth to the Canadian border.

The organization has taken many steps to thrive. After opening an endowment fund with a large gift from a donor, the organization has cultivated its board, focused on planned giving strategies, cultivated younger donors, and reinvested the earnings income.

“When our organization received a very large unexpected gift from a local individual in 1998, the board saw an opportunity to build,” said Executive Director Erin Shay. “Instead of putting such a large gift to use in one year, our board of directors wanted to see those dollars work forever, so they opened an endowment called the Forever Fund.”

Thanks to support from the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation's Endowment team, this organization now has guidance and best practice ideas to grow.

Erin believes, “it's helpful to have an organization like that behind you, where your dollars are invested, with another nonprofit that shares its same values and commitment to community."

Expanding Services and Reach

United Way volunteers packing Buddy Backpacks
United Way volunteers packing Buddy Backpacks

Since establishing their endowment, the organization has been able to grow, leaning deeper into its community impact model.

In addition to providing support to local nonprofits, the organization operates multiple programs, including:

  • Buddy Backpack Program, which provides weekend meals to hungry children
  • Dolly Parton Imagination Library Program
  • United for Veterans, which fills gaps in regional veterans’ services
  • Smiles United dental program in partnership with another organization for underinsured or uninsured individuals in the area

“We try to be the agency that people in our community can go to when they see a need that's not being backed,” Erin said.

“That's how the majority of our community impact programs come about. Buddy Backpacks, for instance, came from a school nurse contacting our previous executive director about a handful of students who were coming to school on Monday mornings after not eating over the weekend, complaining of stomach cramps and headaches.”

Through these programs and others, United Way of Northeastern Minnesota has been able to invest in a vast variety of community needs.

Instead of putting such a large gift to use in one year, our board of directors wanted to see those dollars work forever, so they opened an endowment called the Forever Fund.

Executive Director Erin Shay

Educating Donors on the Importance of Planned Giving

Despite being geographically one of the largest United Ways in the nation, United Way of Northeastern Minnesota is a mid-size nonprofit that has truly benefited from cultivating planned giving with its donors.

Each month the organization aims to spend an average of three to five hours on planned giving, while also capitalizing on opportunities to weave planned giving information into more of their programming.

To support endowment fundholders, the Foundation offers organizations planned giving strategies, workshop and networking opportunities, as well as giving options to better support their donors. Options include establishing Charitable Remainder Trusts or Charitable Gift Annuities and support developing a non-cash assets strategy.

“Our goal with that outreach is to educate donors on our work in the region,” said Erin. “We created retiree packets that are being distributed to a variety of workplaces and included information on how to get involved with our United Way as well as information on long-term investing. We're also trying to be really intentional with the way we talk to our board of directors about planned giving. I've had a board member talking to family and friends who now have investments in the organization; sharing ways to contribute to the United Way prior to retirement.”

While the organization has found ways to pull in Baby Boomers, it is still working to attract younger donors.

“We're trying to get people through our door by having people who are interested in volunteering get involved with our direct service programs,” Erin said. “When you can cultivate a volunteer, eventually they become a donor to your organization. I feel that younger generations really want to make sure they can trust the organization, and know where their dollars are being used, before they make a financial investment.”

Benefit of Having an Endowment Fund

Encouraging donors and potential donors to see the value in planned giving has allowed United Way of Northeastern Minnesota to continue growing its endowment fund and survive during the last few years of the pandemic.

“Having an endowment is important for a variety of reasons, but especially in uncertain economic times,” said Erin. “Nonprofits across the nation are seeing a decline in donors and the support they are receiving, so having an endowment provides a source of ongoing annual support. That's really a key goal of our board to work to build our endowment so that we can see a higher return on investment. As far as interest earnings, we are able to invest those funds into our organization as annual revenue.”

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