The Rising Star of the Midwest: Inside Otto Bremer Foundation’s Big Give

In the past, the Otto Bremer Foundation has been modest. The Minneapolis, Minnesota-based philanthropy has long supported public health projects in its home state, and so it’s plugged along, giving out a few million dollars each year to fund initiatives supporting underprivileged populations in Minnesota, and sometimes, North Dakota. It handed out under a hundred grants each year, and most of them were between $10,000 and $100,000. Then something started to shift.

In March of 2013, the Otto Bremer Foundation announced it would begin considering grant applications from La Crosse and Eau Claire, Wisconsin. See, the Otto Bremer Foundation owns 92% of Bremer Bank, and when new bank locations open, the Foundation follows. So these two Wisconsin locations came online alongside several others around Minnesota and North Dakota, and apparently they’re doing quite well. The Foundation’s March, June, August, and October grant cycles opened and closed with nothing out of the ordinary. Then, boom: End of year 2013, the Foundation decided to double its usual quarterly giving. It announced it was giving away $9.3 million to initiatives farther flung than it had ever considered before.

It gave over two million dollars to projects in North Dakota and Wisconsin. It gave $300,000 to the Phillips Eye Institute Foundation, which supports eye care education for children in Minneapolis. It socked $200,000 at the African Development Center in Minneapolis, to support the work it does sustaining recent immigrants in new business ventures. It gave $80,000 to hospice in Marshall, MN. It even lobbed $5,000 at the Greater Mankato Diversity Council, which gives at-risk middle school girls leadership skills. Its giving may seem to be all over the place, but if you look closer, some real trends emerge.

Everything revolves around health and stability. Almost everything involves reaching out to an at-risk population—Native Americans, immigrants, single moms, domestic violence victims. Everything is in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin, which is bad news for those outside the Midwest, but with the philanthropy’s recent expansions, organizations in nearby states should be keeping the giver on their radar. Keep the three big tenets of Bremer grantmaking in mind—“basic needs are met,” “mutual regard is prized,” and “opportunities for economic, civic and social participation are within everyone’s reach,” and craft a proposal that fits their interests.